The Nashville Predators won for the fourth time Thursday night by playing the kind of game Peter Laviolette is not famous for – and probably not too fond of, either.
Save a small stretch of offensive zone play during the second period, the Predators clogged up their own zone when they were not wafting around in the neutral zone. Pucks were habitually shimmied up and down the boards, they often volleyed with the Flyers at mid-ice, and in doing so continually tested the patience and resolve of a Flyers team that maybe had fallen a little too much in love with the pretty play.
There was nothing pretty about Thursday night’s 1-0 Nashville victory at the Wells Fargo Center. If not for the speed that has increasingly defined the league this decade, it had all the charm of a Lindros-era Devils game. At the game’s halfway point, the shots stood 13-10 in favor of Nashville and even that seemed generous. Passes were made, pucks shot, but rarely did they find their way through the thicket of bodies pushing and shoving in front of Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne.
“I mean, that was a lot of battle,’’ Rinne said. “I was able to see the puck for the most part and make the first save always. But a lot of times guys were bailing me out, too.’’
It looked like a free buffet when sportswriters are around.
“Defense for me comes in a lot of different layers, right?” Laviolette had said earlier in the day after his team’s morning skate. “One, go play offense. That’s good defense. Two, as you have the puck and you’re trying to transition, make good decisions. That’s all about defense, because you’re talking about an odd-man rush the other way. And then the third part of it is, just making sure, inside the defensive zone, that you’re doing the right thing, keeping the numbers there. That you’re not thinking about offense before you’re done playing defense. Those things for me add up to defense.’’
I know what you’re thinking: Who is this guy? As the Flyers coach from late 2009 until he was fired early in 2013, Laviolette championed a more aggressive attack mentality that often – too often toward the end — resulted in the other team flooding your zone with numbers. But the overall speed of the NHL, particularly over the last few years, has forced a tinkering of that philosophy.
“Back when I was here, very rarely did you see a two-man forecheck,’’ he said. “It was always a 1-2-2 or a 1-1-3. It was always layered. And some teams pinched, maybe one defenseman but not the other?
“Now, everybody slams the wall. Everybody pinches. Just seems that there is a lot of aggressiveness. Everything is just being done faster. Fast players, fast systems, fast mind-set. All of that leads to fast hockey. We’re trying to get faster. We stunk in Boston in Game 1 because we weren’t fast enough. It’s all about speed right now.’’
When the teams had played 10 days before, too much happened. The Predators took a three-goal lead, the Flyers countered with five straight goals. The game, won by Nashville, 6-5, was decided via petty penalty calls as Flyers coach Dave Hakstol learned a hard lesson about unsuccessful offsides replay challenges.
Cool passes were made, juicy rebounds converted, the crowd was noisy from start to finish.
Since then, the Predators have allowed just three regulation goals in four games.
“I thought we did a really good job, just hanging in our end, not getting ahead of ourselves out into the neutral zone or the offensive zone,’’ said Laviolette. “When we do, we get going in the right direction, we’ve been making better decisions in the neutral zone… which is leading to more offense, leading to a better looking game.’’
Better looking? Only if you were being paid to watch.
That said, Thursday night’s success had as much to do with the Flyers’ early lack of “jam”– Laviolette’s trademark phrase for energy. On the score sheet, they were out-hit, 22-12, and Radko Gudas and Robert Hagg accounted for half of those. Given two early power plays inside those first 30 minutes, the Flyers mustered just a single shot on goal.
Said Hakstol, “If I generalize, in the first 30 minutes of this hockey game, we had some opportunities we didn’t make our best play or execute as well as we could. I didn’t think that was the case in the third period. Give the man credit in net. He made some real good saves.”
True. Rinne made 12 of his 28 saves in the third period, and some, like a stop on Sean Couturier, were stellar. But the game’s lone goal began with a defensive play deep in Nashville’s zone, an active stick flicking the puck away from Andrew MacDonald as he charged aggressively into the slot for a pass from Simmonds, sending an odd-man rush the other way. Carlton Sissons beat Michal Neuvirth at 3 minutes, 49 seconds of the third period and for the first time since that game in Nashville, the Flyers were chasing a lead.
“They didn’t get to the Stanley Cup Finals with luck,’’ said Flyers captain Claude Giroux. “They’re a good team, they have a good system and they have a lot of good players. As frustrated as we are right now that we didn’t get the win, we have to stay positive and play some good hockey. We have to be ready for Saturday.”