5 things Preds must fix before the playoffs

Friday, April 6, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 14
By John Glennon

Nashville Predators left wing Kevin Fiala has to stop drawing penalties. During a seven-game stretch heading into this week, the second-line left winger  led the team with five minor penalties.

-- Photo By Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire Via Ap Images

Only hours after setting a franchise record for single-season points last week, the Predators returned to their Centennial Sportsplex practice rink.

They didn’t skate that morning – resting their legs instead – but Preds coach Peter Laviolette still thought it was important to gather his players for a video study session.

His point was clear: As impressive as it was that the Predators stood atop the NHL standings and had clinched the best regular season in franchise history, improvement was still necessary.

“We’re always working on something,” Laviolette says. “We’re always trying to get better at something.”

The Predators would be wise to keep that same mentality as the playoffs near.

While it’s true the Preds are very much in the hunt for the Presidents’ Trophy and home ice through the entire playoffs, the team could also stand to shore up some issues in order to make another run at the Stanley Cup.

Here are five areas the Predators could improve upon heading into the postseason:

1. Take pressure off the goalies

Predators netminders Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros have combined to give Nashville the best goaltending in the league for most of this season – in terms of save percentage, goals against average and shutouts.

But the Predators have at times been too reliant on their outstanding goalies.

With just a few games left in the season, the Predators had surprisingly totaled fewer high-danger scoring chances (827) than they’d allowed (905). The Preds have been fortunate Rinne and Saros have combined for the NHL’s third-best high-danger save percentage in the NHL.

But the Preds don’t want to keep tempting fate because they can get burned, as was illustrated by the 25 goals Nashville surrendered during one recent six-game stretch. In three of those games, the Predators allowed at least 36 shots on goal.

“I think that’s definitely an area we can improve,” Preds captain Roman Josi says of allowing fewer scoring chances. “I think coming to (the playoffs), you want to be playing well defensively. We all know what we’re capable of.”

2. Take fewer penalties

The Predators have in recent weeks returned to their early season habit of taking too many penalties.

In back-to-back games against San Jose and Buffalo, for instance, the Predators found themselves short-handed a combined 15 times. Not only does all that time spent killing penalties exhaust the penalty killers, but it also keeps a potent Predators offense silent.

It’s not always the team’s physical players that are guilty of taking penalties, either.

During a seven-game stretch heading into this week, second-line left wing Kevin Fiala led the team with five minor penalties, and first-line center Ryan Johansen was next with four.

“I think we all try to do the right things – I think everybody has the right intentions,” Preds defenseman P.K. Subban acknowledges. “We’re competitive. We’re on the puck. We don’t want to lose battles. But I think you have to move your feet.

“I think when we get into trouble, it’s when we’re reaching and we’re not moving our feet. Part of that is just the grind of the season. It’s long and it can be tough. But it’s an area of our game we want to clean up.”

3. Improve the power play

The Predators are loaded with offensive talent, from the team’s highly skilled top two lines to their top-four defensemen to a cast of foot soldiers ready to crash the crease.

We’ve seen them take advantage of that offensive firepower on the power play through much of the year, especially on home ice.

But the Preds’ man-advantage units have struggled during the past month, going just four-for-47 (8.5 percent) during one 14-game stretch, the third-worst production in the league.

There’s just no reason for the Predators to be coming up empty so often on the power play, not with the likes of Subban, Josi, Ryan Ellis, Filip Forsberg, Johansen, Kyle Turris and Fiala on the ice with one another.

“We’ve got to sharpen up the power play – we have to get that job done,” Preds forward Scott Hartnell explains. “You’re going to get opportunities and you’d love to get goals. But it also has to get some momentum for you … It starts first and foremost with outworking the other team’s penalty killers.”

4. Improve the penalty kill

It’s hard to be too critical of the Preds’ penalty-killing unit, since it has ranked in the top third of the league for much of the season.

But the Preds were trending in the wrong direction as the playoffs approached.

During the recent six-game stretch in which the Preds surrendered 25 goals, the penalty kill was a big culprit – as eight of those goals by opponents came on the power play. The Predators allowed two power-play goals in a loss to Toronto, two more in a loss to Winnipeg and a whopping four in a loss to Buffalo – three coming on one five-minute major to Hartnell.

The Preds may well find themselves going up against some high-octane offenses in the playoffs – like Winnipeg, Vegas, San Jose or Colorado. They’ll have to find a way to neutralize some of the better power plays in the league.

5. Set the lineup

Barring injury, we know by now what the Preds’ top two lines will look like, as well as their top two defensive pairings.

But there’s been plenty of mixing and matching on the team’s third and fourth lines, along with a rotation on the third defensive pairing.

That means there are still some lineup questions the Preds need to answer heading into the playoffs: For instance, will prospect Eeli Tolvanen play much of a role for the team or not? Which forwards and which defensemen will be the odd men out at the start of the postseason?

As much as the Preds’ depth is an advantage, it couldn’t hurt to have the probable playoff lineup play at least a couple of regular-season games together.

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