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VOL. 42 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 27, 2018

Advance and learn: Preds prove their ability to evolve

By John Glennon

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Nashville Predators right wing Ryan Hartman, for whom the Preds gave up a first-round pick earlier this season, hasn’t earned many fans this postseason after drawing untimely penalties. He also was suspended a game for a hit to the head of Colorado’s Carl Soderberg.

-- Photo By Russell Lansford/Icon Sportswire Via Ap Images

Every round of the NHL playoffs presents teams an opportunity to grow as they move forward.

A year ago, for instance, the Predators learned they could handle the league’s best by beating Chicago in Round 1, proved they could overcome St. Louis’ tight-checking system in Round 2 and discovered they could match Anaheim’s punishing style in Round 3.

The long journey toward this year’s Stanley Cup has only just begun, but already the Predators have gained valuable insight by knocking off the speedy, spirited Colorado Avalanche in the first round.

Here are five things the Predators learned about themselves in their opening-round win over the Avalanche, and how those lessons can be applied to their Western Conference semi-final match-up with the Winnipeg Jets:

1. An attitude adjustmen

A year ago the Predators were able to sneak up on some playoff foes, the result of squeaking into the playoffs as the 16th-best team in the league.

Everything has changed this postseason for the top-seeded Predators, who will be getting every underdog’s best shot throughout the playoffs.

That different scenario looked as if it took some getting used to for the Predators in the first round, as a young, carefree Colorado team outscored Nashville 5-0 in the opening periods of the first three games. But the Predators upped their consistency and intensity levels as the series went on, understanding they would need to match the Avs’ aggressiveness each and every night.

Learning that lesson in the first round and still managing to win was important for the Predators, who could have ended up like last year’s top-seeded Blackhawks – bounced by Nashville in the first round.

The Predators should now be comfortable in the favorite’s role, knowing how desperate future playoff opponents like the Jets will be.

“I don’t think you want to have to (adjust your mindset), but I do think it was a little different,” Predators forward Austin Watson says. “It wasn’t that we felt too good about ourselves or anything like that (coming into the playoffs), but it’s definitely a little different mindset coming in as the top team in the league as to the last team in.”

2. The third-line masterpiece

Through the course of the entire regular season, the trio of Colton Sissons, Nick Bonino and Watson spent less than 30 minutes playing on the same line with one another.

But Preds coach Peter Laviolette – seeking a trio of smart, defensive-minded players to counter Colorado’s top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen – constructed the Sissons-Bonino-Watson monster and watched it take control of the series.

The three newly united Preds combined for 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists) in six games, outscoring the Avs’ big three and leaving the three Colorado players with a combined minus-seven rating.

Talk about gelling quickly.

“Yeah, I would say it was quick chemistry,” Laviolette acknowledges. “Sometimes that happens. You don’t know what you’re going to get.

“I think the reason (they were together) going into it was because they were big, strong and they were good defensive players, smart hockey players. But the offense came from it as well. That’s probably more of what you see when you talk about chemistry ... It was quick and it worked.”

Now the question is which Winnipeg line Laviolette will sic his three-headed beast upon: The Jets have two highly talented offensive lines, no surprise considering the team featured five forwards who totaled at least 57 points during the regular season – Blake Wheeler (91 points), Patrik Laine (70), Nikolaj Ehlers (60), Mark Schiefele (60) and Kyle Connor (57).

If Sissons, Bonino and Watson can neutralize another top line, it will go a long way in helping the Predators advance.

3. Second line needs to step up

It’s a good thing the Preds’ first and third lines were so offensively productive in the series against Colorado because the second line struggled.

The threesome of Kevin Fiala, Kyle Turris and Craig Smith, who’d been a steady source of points during the regular season, totaled just three goals and two assists in six games against the Avalanche. The trio finished with a combined minus-four rating as well.

Fiala spent some time on the Preds’ fourth line in the final game of the series.

Considering the Predators and Jets combined for 41 goals in five regular-season meetings this year, there’s certainly the potential for plenty of offense in the teams’ playoff games as well. Nashville will need more punch from Fiala, Turris and Smith in order to operate at full speed.

It’s worth remembering, however, that both Fiala and Turris scored three goals against the Jets in five regular-season contests.

4. They bounce back quickly

One of the hallmarks of the Predators’ record-breaking regular season was an absence of lengthy slumps. Only twice during the taxing 82-game season did the Preds lose as many as three straight contests.

The Predators twice bounced back quickly during the first-round series against Colorado as well.

After getting badly outplayed at the start of a Game 3 loss, the Preds came out with a fury in Game 4, dominating early en route to a victory. After suffering what could have been a brutally demoralizing loss in Game 5 – when they surrendered a pair of late goals – the Preds bounced back to play their best game of the series in the Game 6 showdown on opposition ice.

The ability to recover quickly will be key against the Jets, as the teams’ regular-season meetings were full of twists, turns and surprise endings.

“We obviously had some games where we thought we could have played better, but we always found a way to show a reaction in the next game,” Preds captain Roman Josi explains of the opening round. “Sometimes, playoff (games) don’t go your way. You have to make sure you put those in the trash and focus on the next game.”

5. Ryan is a risk

The Predators gave up a first-round draft pick as part of the deal to acquire forward Ryan Hartman this season, so for him to sit out the last two games of the series against Colorado – one for suspension and one as a healthy scratch – was a significant disappointment.

But Hartman represents a significant risk for the Predators, one that’s magnified in the playoffs.

The agitating forward took three penalties against the Avalanche, including one that led to the NHL’s one-game suspension. Since putting on a Preds uniform, Hartman has managed to draw a team-high seven penalties, but he’s also been whistled for eight penalties himself. He manages to irritate others but has to learn to keep his own composure.

With every power play – and every goal – that much more important in the playoffs, the Preds face a tough decision on whether to play Hartman or not.

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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