NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Another off-season came and went without the Predators acquiring elite offensive talent, once again forcing team’s depth forwards to step up and collectively fill that void.
And so far, Gabriel Bourque, Matt Cullen and Craig Smith have done just that — forming a line that had a big role in Nashville’s successful homestand.
“They can use their speed, and they’re using their legs,” Barry Trotz said. “It’s really important for that line to be checking well and moving the puck well and shooting it … It gives us lots of options.”
While few could have guessed Bourque, Cullen and Smith would comprise the Preds’ most effective combo on any given night, they’ve been able to develop the kind of chemistry one would hope to see from a top-six line. Couple that with their ability to create scoring chances by driving to the net, and Nashville has itself a potentially lethal trio — one that’s comprised of (mostly) spare parts.
“Last few games we’ve been generating some opportunities,” said Matt Cullen, who scored his first goal of the season on Thursday: the team’s lone tally in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Kings. “We’re continuing to work together, we talk a lot on the ice. We go some guys with some good speed and good creativity that are making some things happen.”
After several games in which he was one of the best forwards for the Preds but couldn’t finish, Cullen finally lit the lamp as a Nashville Predator — lifting a heavy burden off his shoulders.
“I felt like it was about time for something to go in here,” he said. “You always want to contribute, they haven’t been coming easy so it was nice to see it go in.”
Bourque, Smith and Cullen deserve credit for sticking to their respective styles and not trying to alter too much or grip their sticks too hard while trying to get on the score sheet. Trotz told Cullen during Thursday’s morning skate not to get frustrated and not to change what he’s doing, and that mindset certainly paid off versus the Kings — and it paid off for Smith when he scored a pivotal goal in the win over Florida.
“I don’t know if you say it’s just dumb luck that [we're not getting a lot of bounces] but if you continue to do the right things, good things are going to happen,” Smith said.
When things aren’t going your way, the first thing you want to do is change. And it’s not good for what we’re trying to do with our hockey club. We’ve been very specific on how we want to build this team so that it can win on a night-in and night out basis and win in different ways .You don’t want to change it because you didn’t win a hockey game … you just stay with the game plan.
By the Numbers
The Preds as a team have done a tremendous job recently of posting positive shot differentials since beating Minnesota, and the Bourque/Cullen/Smith line has been a huge part of that success. All of their Corsi and Fenwick percentages are currently above 50 percent, which is highly encouraging and indicative of how well they’ve been able to generate shots.
|Corsi%||Corsi Close%||Fenwick%||Fenwick Close%|
While they may be getting softer minutes than others, these three have been making the most of their opportunities — and have begun to reap the rewards of their efforts with goals in consecutive games.
The fact that they’ve only scored twice altogether doesn’t represent how well they’ve meshed over the past week. One has to think if they continue to create lots of scoring chances, the goals are going to come at a far more frequent rate.
Smith Looking Like a True Top Six Forward
Last week I wrote about how the Preds weren’t firing enough shots from close-range, but this line, particularly Smith, hasn’t been part of that problem.
Smith, who is coming off a highly disappointing campaign in which he racked up just 12 points in 44 games, has been one of Nashville’s most consistent and productive players in the early portion of 2013-14. His five points (1 G, 4 A) are tied for tops on the team, and his 20 SOG are good for second, behind only Patric Hornqvist (28).
To provide some perspective on how well Smith is driving to the net, here’s a breakdown of where his SOG have come from through six games (shots from LA game will be posted when Gamecenter Live uploads a full-length replay):
“Goals are going to be scored [near the crease], I can’t emphasize that enough,” Smith said after Thursday’s game. “You continue to [drive to the net], good things are going to happen.”
Smith’s remarkable performance at last spring’s World Championships may have been a turning point for the former Wisconsin Badger, who posted 14 points (4G, 10A) in 10 games en route to a bronze medal.
“Everything clicked for me at the Worlds, and I think we’re seeing that this season,” he said. “I feel like I’m earning my ice time here now and doing what I can to help the team.”
The Preds will look to get back on the win column on Saturday when they visit Montreal to take on the Canadiens, who are riding a four-game win streak at the moment.