There is perhaps no goaltender in the NHL that is hotter than the Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne. Last week, NHL.com ran a story on Rinne as an early Hart Trophy leader, and he responded in kind, recording back to back shutouts over playoff teams San Jose and Phoenix.
Through seven games in February, Rinne has posted a 5-1-1 record while allowing a total of seven goals. He’s almost single handily kept the worst offense in the NHL within striking distance of not just a playoff spot, but a top 4 seed and home ice-advantage in the first round.
But he hasn’t done it single handily. As well as Rinne has played this year, he owes a little bit of credit to the defense finally coming together as a unit in the last couple weeks. Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis have looked far more comfortable, and Shea Weber seems to have shaken his slow start, notching his first goal of the season in Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Ducks.
The turnaround is reflected in the boxscore as well. Nashville averages almost 26 shots against per game when Rinne is in net, and in every game last week he’s had to stop fewer, including a season-low 19 in the Valentine’s Day shutout of Phoenix. The stifling defense has seen the team allow the 6th fewest shots on net while becoming the league’s best defense.
Not many expected numbers like that after the loss of Ryan Suter in the offseason. But the beauty of Barry Trotz’s system, is that each player is a cog in a larger machine. Nashville kept their perennial Norris Trophy candidate in Shea Weber, and had players ready to replace Suter, even if it took everyone a handful of games to get their feet under them. They’ve made defensively responsible forwards like David Legwand and Mike Fisher priorities, and are molding a still-impressionable Colin Wilson into the same type of player.
Not many teams can lose a player like Ryan Suter and lower their goals against per game by nearly a whole goal. Shots against per game are down nearly three and a half. The Nashville defense is soaring, while the Minnesota Wild defense is just outside of the top 10, and the team just outside of a playoff spot.
If push comes to shove, and Nashville wants to trade away a player like Jonathon Blum–in and out of the lineup all season–to aid their ailing offense, they should come out of that exchange no worse for wear. But with Patric Hornqvist due back this week, the Predators can afford to play the waiting game. For now, the league’s best defense is carrying the league’s worst offense to another strong season.