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Stacking the Pads: Oct. 23

– An important part of the Predators’ recent success is their penalty kill. In their first four games the Predators went 11-for-17 (64.7%) on the PK. They lost three of those four contests. Since then, though, they have not allowed a power play goal (18-for-18) and the PK has crept up to 14th in the NHL. The team is 4-1-1 in their last six games, due in part to the penalty kill’s success.

“One of the biggest keys to the penalty kill is the faceoffs,” said Matt Hendricks, who is averaging 2:27 of shorthanded ice time through 10 games. “We’re clearing pucks 200 feet off faceoffs, we’re applying pressure and not allowing teams to enter the zone easily. When you put all those things together it makes it hard for other teams to get good opportunities and good looks.”

Last season the penalty kill unit was a liability, as it finished the lockout-shortened season ranked 29th with a 75.5% execution rate. Those struggles carried over into the first handful of games, but the PK has turned around considerably since then. What is the biggest difference?

“I think we’re just more comfortable. There are a lot of new penalty killers here and we’re getting used to the system. You’re always looking for the same keys on the power play but the way you defend it is always a little bit different,” Hendricks said.

The penalty kill has been clutch of late, killing off key penalties late in games. It has earned the Preds some points in the standings that may not be there if the PK had faltered.

“This is a special teams league,” Hendricks said. “We really value the role we (the penalty kill) have on this team to have a great penalty kill because we believe that without it it’s going to be difficult to win.”

 

– Sticking with the special teams, the power play has looked better this season compared to last. The results haven’t quite been there yet this season, as the 15.2% success rate is lower than the 17.1% of 2012-13. Yet it seems like the power play this season has generated more chances on a more consistent basis with more movement in the zone, a la 2011-12 just without the results.

“Our entries have been pretty good; we’re getting possession after those entries,” said assistant coach Phil Housley, who is running the man advantage this season. “We’ve been able to put some units together that are working well. The consistency is there; we didn’t have a lot of that during our exhibition season. It’s good to see they’re moving the puck around. They have an idea of how to attack and it all comes back to shooting the puck.”

The Preds are 4-0 in games they score a power play goal; 1-4-1 when they don’t.

One noticeable strength the Preds have on the man advantage is its twin towers on the point – Shea Weber and Seth Jones. Both have scored on the power play this season and have created offense on the unit by firing away from the blue line.

“I think we have to do a good job of rewarding the forwards that are going hard to the net. We have to get more pucks there,” Housley said. “For the defensemen, that’s one of the key areas we continue to harp on them. You just have to get the puck down in there to create some second chance opportunities.”

 

– Tuesday night in Minnesota, Nystrom dropped the gloves with Wild defenseman Nate Prosser in the third period. One thing to note about the fight was that Prosser was wearing a visor during the bout. Due to new rules enforced this season, players cannot take off their helmets for fights without getting penalized.

What it’s like to fight a guy with a visor compared to someone without one?

“It’s a disadvantage for sure,” Nystrom said. “At the same time we’ve seen a lot of guys falling and banging their heads on the ice and that’s creating some injuries. You’re definitely a little braver when you’re standing in there against someone with a visor. I must have hit that thing about three or four times last night. But everyone is going to be wearing them soon, so that’s the way it goes.”

Nystrom said he’s not tentative at all squaring off against a shielded opponent.

“I could care less. When you’re in the heat of the battle like that, you don’t even think about it; you just go. You just have to suck it up.”

Here is video of the fight:

 

– It’s been a disappointing first month for Viktor Stalberg as he gets acclimated to a new team. He missed the first four games with a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason and hasn’t been a factor since entering the lineup. He has zero points in 11:20 of average ice time. He’s not getting discouraged, though, by the slow start.

“Obviously it’s not the start I was looking for. With the new team and new system and getting hurt in the preseason when you need that time to get used to everything, it wasn’t the best timing,” he said. “The first couple games I was timid out there but I feel the last few games I’ve been making more plays. The puck hasn’t gone in but I’m at least creating some chances.”

When asked whether the free-agent signee has to start producing, Head Coach Barry Trotz said, “Stalberg will have to get going here. He’s still learning us and we’re still learning him, but the games are going by now so he has to start producing.”

 

– Another player that hasn’t been as effective as the team had hoped is Filip Forsberg, who was a healthy scratch in Tuesday’s contest. He scored in his first game of the season but hasn’t found the back of the net in the past six games. Trotz wants to see Forsberg find another level in his game.

“He was looking, to me, a little bit tired. Sometimes with young guys the pace of the game picks up when you play night in and night out and it’s hard for young guys to do that night in and night out,” said Trotz, who mentioned Forsberg will return to the lineup on Thursday against Winnipeg.

 

– With 10 NHL games under his belt, Seth Jones has played his last game with the Portland Winterhawks. There really was no threat of him being sent back to junior because he’s been so good and so important to the Predators in the early going. But that didn’t cause the ever-humble 19-year-old to assume anything.

After the Predators’ sixth game he was asked if he’s pinched himself at any moment this month, considering his age and playing next to Shea Weber, etc. His response: “It’s just now feeling a little bit more real. I still have four more games here. Hopefully I can stick after nine or 10 games.”

Yeah, I think he’ll stick.

Here is a story I did on Jones for Sportsnet, on his ability to succeed in the NHL as a teenager. Another interesting read on Jones comes from Elliotte Friedman of CBC on how the Predators landed the stud defenseman at No. 4 overall.

 

– This past road trip was filled with homecomings for various Preds. Colin Wilson and Barry Trotz returned to Winnipeg. Gabriel Bourque played his first NHL game in his home province of Quebec. Matt Cullen, Matt Hendricks and Phil Housley were able to go back home to Minnesota.

It was an extra special weekend for Carter Hutton. Not only did he win his first NHL game on Sunday in Winnipeg, he did it in front of about 15 family and friends from Thunder Bay, Ontario, which is a nine-hour drive from Winnipeg. Hutton made 38 saves in the Preds’ 3-1 win against the Jets.

“It was great having my mom and dad there. I think my mom was a little more nervous than anybody, but it was fun. I hadn’t seen them in a while, so it was nice to see them during the day,” he said. “You never know when your first win is going to come, if at all. It was really exciting.”

 

– The story of the NHL right now is what’s happening in Colorado. Patrick Roy’s Avalanche, a new division rival of Nashville, is 8-1-0 through nine games and has won games in tough road cities: Toronto, Boston, Washington and Pittsburgh. They are also second in the league with a +16 goal differential.

The Avalanche beat the Predators, 3-1, in the second game of the season. When asked about his thoughts on the way that team looked up close compared to recent seasons, Nystrom said:

“They have a lot of good, young energy, a lot of high-end skill and obviously they are responding to a new coach. They have a lot of jump and are playing a good system,” he said. “That organization has a lot of history from when they were winning the Stanley Cup. It’s good to see them get back on top and it’s just another team we’ll have to battle against.”

Can the Avalanche keep up this lights-out play? We’ll see. We’ve seen some teams fizzle out after a hot start, but some never go away when pundits expect them to (see: Phoenix). Roy has certainly injected some new life into the Avs, which makes them a threat for a playoff spot in the West.

 

– Trotz joined 102.5 The Game’s The First Quarter on Wednesday morning for his weekly “Coffee with the Coach” segment, which can be heard here:

 

– If you missed Tom Callahan’s call of Seth Jones’ game-winner in Montreal on Saturday night, you can listen to it here:

 
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