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Nashville Predators

With Their Backs Against The Wall, Predators Can’t Afford Another Slow Start

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Photo of Gustav Nyquist by John Russell/Nashville Predators

It’s no secret that the Nashville Predators are fighting for their season.

Knowing that the Canucks did not want to board a plane and return to Nashville again, the Predators staved off elimination after a huge 2-1 win in Vancouver in Game 5.

The 2,000-plus mile one-way journey between the two places takes its toll, especially when you’re crossing a continent after enduring the physicality of such a grueling series (there’s been a combined 353 hits and 158 blocked shots through five games).

Vancouver certainly looked inspired in Game 5, almost like it was the one battling to stay alive. But much of the talk after the game was about how the Predators “weathered the storm” and gutted out a win.

Forward Filip Forsberg mentioned the Predators bared through the Canucks’ fast start before and eventually found their game later in the period and got their feet under them in the second frame.

“I thought we maybe were a little slow in the first,” Forsberg said. “We knew they were going to come out hard, but we weathered the storm really well.”

But the problem is banking on weathering the storm is playing with fire and not at all a winning strategy.

Goaltender Juuse Saros’ numbers have been slightly down in the series. Sure, he’s allowed some soft goals — such as the opening tally in Game 5 from defenseman Nikita Zadorov — but he’s made far more quality saves than he has allowed bad goals.

Nevertheless, relying on him to hold off a relentless Canucks attack while the Predators ease into the game just cannot happen.

“I don’t think we were particularly sharp,” Predators coach Andrew Brunette said following Game 5. “But I think as a group, we stuck together, we weathered it, and then I thought we got to our game in the second period. And that’s kind of us, in a way, a little bit of that relentless, on top of you.”

Having an identity is great, but expecting things to stay status quo until they settle into playing with that identity is not sustainable.

This iteration of the Predators is different from those in previous years that prioritized defense and goaltending, and were happy to win low-scoring, one-goal games.

On multiple occasions, Brunette has explicitly mentioned that he does not like to defend — he wants to have an up-tempo, aggressive style of play.

But for whatever reason, call it good defense on the Canucks’ behalf, the Predators haven’t been able to find the score sheet as much as they would like; neither team has, really.

Nashville is averaging 2.4 goals per game in the postseason, down significantly from the 3.24 goals per game it averaged during the regular season.

This series has been a defensive chess match, with both teams finding it difficult to even generate many shots (Game 5 was the first one won by the team that had the most shots on goal).

With the type of series this has been, the Predators are not equipped to be a comeback team. Sure, they overcame a 1-0 hole in the third period in Game 5, but after two scoreless periods, many people had to be questioning whether the Canucks’ opening goal was going to be the dagger, effectively ending the Predators’ season.

During the regular season, the Canucks amassed the NHL’s best record when scoring the first goal of the game. Thirty-eight of their 50 regular season wins were from games where they opened the scoring. Conversely, when the Predators surrendered the first goal they were 12-20-2.

However, the Predators are capable of beating the Canucks at their own game. Nashville thrives when it jumps out to a lead first. The Predators were the third-best team in the NHL when finding the back of the net before the opposition, notching 35 wins.

The Predators have opened the scoring in three of the five games this series, but that may be thanks to Saros making lots of timely saves and the Predators’ defense hanging on. It’s sometimes difficult to believe when the Canucks apply lots of pressure for minutes at a time and don’t score.

Considering the Predators will be playing elimination hockey for the rest of this series, playing from behind isn’t something they will want to push their luck with.

Of course, telling the Predators to start better would be stating the obvious. Certainly, it isn’t for a lack of trying.

For as much as Brunette hates defending, surely the players who get caught out on the ice for stretches of 90 seconds or longer hate it even more.

Yet there must be some adjustments made to allow the Predators to immediately get to their aggressive, relentless style of play early rather than sitting back and waiting to counter-attack.

Vancouver is motivated to put the Predators away. It’s the higher seed and entered the series as the betting favorite. But Nashville just won’t go away. The series has been unbelievably close, but if Nashville wants to force a game 7, it must be the hunter not the hunted in Game 6 on Friday.

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