NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Predators’ early season scoring woes have been well-documented over the last few weeks. Heading into the fifth game of 2013-14, they had racked up just 25.9 S/G — the same average as their league-worst figure last year — and had lit the lamp just six times.
But despite the frustration, there has been strong evidence that improvements were being made, albeit slowly.
On Tuesday, after two straight losses to kick off the new campaign, the Preds converted on two straight power play opportunities en route to a victory, though they were horribly out-shot in the contest.
On Thursday, they dominated possession and fired 36 SOG to Toronto’s 26, though they were unable to generate many chances and were shut out by Jonathan Bernier.
On Saturday, it all came together.
At risk of falling into a 1-4 hole with a loss to the New York Islanders, Nashville’s offense operated on a level not seen yet in this young season. Not only were the Preds shooting consistently, they were creating lots of quality chances, as well, and were able to send a crowd of 17,116 home happy with a 3-2 win.
Seth Jones earned the first goal of his NHL career, and Patric Hornqvist and Ryan Ellis each registered their first tallies of 2013-14. A second period lull notwithstanding, this was the most complete effort we’ve seen from the Predators in quite some time.
“It’s all starting to click now,” said Shea Weber. “The last game we didn’t see the results from the work and effort, but tonight we showed what we can do and got the puck in the back of the goal.”
The most noticeable difference between Thursday’s game and Saturday’s was how well the Preds drove to the net and fired close range shots on Evgeni Nabokov. On Thursday, they shot the puck just six times from less than 30 feet from the net; on Saturday, they registered 16 shots from less than 30 feet out.
“I think [the offense is coming together],” said Hornqvist. “We got some great chances … we were playing the way we have to to win.”
The Preds have now significantly out-shot their opponent in two straight games, which is highly encouraging for a squad that rarely accomplished that feat last year.
History tells us how vital it is to have a positive shots for/shots against ratio: Between 2007-08 and 2011-12, 75 percent of teams that had a Fenwick Close percentage of +.500 in a given year made the playoffs.
(Fenwick counts the No. of *unblocked* shot attempts by a team or individual. Fenwick Close is the number of unblocked shot attempts by a team or individual when the game is within one goal in the first or second period and tied in the third period and OT.)
In 2011-12 — the last full season’s worth of data we have at our disposal — the 10 teams with the best Fenwick Close percentages were, in order from lowest to highest, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Vancouver, San Jose, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
All of them made it to the postseason that spring.
Nashville’s Fenwick Close percentage versus New York was an impressive .659. That isn’t sustainable by any means, but their FC% from Thursday (.526) is close to the level they should strive for.
It’s difficult to reach any conclusions with a sample size as small as two games, but this could be the start of a positive trend. Now they just have to keep it up.
“Last two games we’ve have over 30 shots per game — that’s huge for us,” said Ellis, who potted the GWG 3:23 into the final frame. “Just put the puck on net, and that’s what we’ve been doing lately. We haven’t been getting bounces, but tonight we got a few and that’s what we need to win.”
While much of the credit for the disparity in the above graph goes to the offense, it also has a lot to do with how well Nashville stymied New York’s lethal attack. The Preds surrendered just 16 SOG against the fatigued Isles, taking some pressure off the shoulders of Pekka Rinne.
“When you [out-shoot the other team], a couple things are happening,” Barry Trotz said. ”You’re doing a good job defensively, No. 1. Two, you’re not deviating from the plan, and three you’re consciously trying to shoot the puck a little bit more. That’s sort of got to be a little bit of our calling card.”
As Trotz has said on numerous occasions, this is a team that’s learning how to win again. Progress, no matter how small, is significant at this juncture. Since losing in Colorado, the Preds have gotten better in one way or another with every game, which is promising regardless of the record they’ve posted in that span.
The players have emphasized how important it is to stick to the coaches’ plan as opposed to making major adjustments — and that’s exactly what they have done thus far.
“I think we’ve been playing hard this season,” said Hornqvist. “It’s all beginning to come together. We were definitely more aggressive tonight, and we have to keep it up the rest of the year.”