Penguins continue to exploit Predators' third-pairing weakness (Trending Topics)

PITTSBURGH, PA – JUNE 08: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is defended by Matt Irwin #52 and Yannick Weber #7 of the Nashville Predators during the second period in Game Five of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG PAINTS Arena on June 8, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Nashville Predators better hope that Ryan Ellis’s injury, whatever it happens to be, doesn’t preclude or in any way limit his participation in Sunday night’s elimination game.

The Predators’ success in this postseason has been predicated on two things: A heavy forecheck that creates turnovers through the middle of the ice, and a stalwart defense in which the top two pairings eat huge minutes against Pittsburgh’s big guns and mostly come out on top.

Didn’t happen so much in Game 6, of course. On either front. But this was the Predators’ first actually bad game of the Stanley Cup Final, and things were truly thrown into disarray when Ellis — averaging 24-plus minutes a night in this series — left the game early in the second period.

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Peter Laviolette’s previously rock-steady D corps, which had reliably gone P.K. Subban/Mattias Ekholm, then Ellis/Roman Josi, and very occasionally Yannick Weber/Matt Irwin had to be jumbled. The results were not pretty. Yes, Nashville was already down 4-0 at that point — and the Penguins certainly had the better of play all night — but things got ugly in a hurry after that, with the Penguins building a strong possession lead for a while and adding two more goals to the pile.

More concerning was that Weber/Irwin pairing getting broken up and exposed to more time. It’s telling that even despite all the ups and downs of this series, they still only averaged 10:20 and 11:23, respectively, in this Cup Final. Moreover, it’s telling that despite those modest workloads — the fewest minutes of anyone on the team who’d appeared in all four games — they’d been on the ice for three and two goals against, also respectively.

This isn’t to say they’re bad defensemen. Both are, in fact, above-average third-pairing guys who would help just about any team in the league in that specific role. I’d go so far as to say this is a top-three third pair in the entire NHL. But when you get even good No. 5 defensemen out there against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on occasion, well, bad things are going to happen for you.

Weber and Irwin were on the ice for the second Pittsburgh goal last night. Weber was on the ice for the third (with Ekholm). Irwin was on the ice for the fourth (also with Ekholm), and the fifth (with Subban).

And it’s not some sort of crazy trend that’s just cropping up in Ellis’s absence. Not surprisingly, Irwin and Weber have been the worst defenders Nashville put over the boards in all five games.

Here’s what happens when the various Nashville defensemen are on the ice and trying to defend at even strength in this series. All this comes with the caveat that they’re both starting 70-plus percent of their shifts in the attacking zone and the idea that Laviolette was trying to keep the bottom pairing as far away from elite opponents as possible:


This is what we in the hockey business call a “liability.” With the Stanley Cup in the building on Sunday night, the idea that these guys might have to take on bigger roles against a team with a top-six this talent-laden is worrisome to say the least. Those are really scary goals-against and attempts-against numbers.

If Ellis is out for Game 6, or even limited in what kind of role he can play, it could spell big trouble. (And to be blunt, Ellis was horrible last night; Nashville was out-attempted 13-4 when he was on the ice at even strength.) Whomever their seventh defenseman happens to be — either Petter Granberg or Anthony Bitetto, one assumes — they haven’t played the entire postseason and also more importantly they are not very good.

Again, line-matching plays a role, but Mike Sullivan didn’t even put Crosby and Malkin out against the bottom pair that much. He didn’t have to, of course. If you’re conceding goals to the Matt Cullen line, then why throw the big fish out there on a night that got ugly in the first place?

And look, obviously Crosby had a monster night, drawing the penalty that led to the opening power play goal, picking up three assists, throwing a water bottle like a total dweeb, blah blah blah. Malkin, too, brought the heat with a huge performance that netted him a goal and an assist but more importantly possibly, hopefully won him a richly deserved Conn Smythe.

Sometimes those kinds of players are going to have big games and you’re not going to be able to do much to stop it, regardless of who you are.

Meanwhile, at the other end, the Pittsburgh defense still left something to be desired, even in a shutout, as has been their wont. While they did a good job of keeping Nashville, with only five high-danger chances in the game, away from Matt Murray, their ability to get the puck up the ice still isn’t good enough. And even with the potential for an Ellis absence in Game 6, you take your chances on a blue line with a top-three of Subban/Ekholm/Josi versus Brian Dumoulin/Ron Hainsey/Olli Maatta. A lot of weird stuff would have to happen for the Pens to pull even with Nashville in terms of D quality.

But look at the trends here. The Predators’ advantage in terms of quality of play (attempts, chances, high-quality chances, etc.) has deteriorated in each game of this series. Huge in Game 1. Still pretty big in Game 2. Narrow in Game 3. Marginal in Game 4. Non-existent in Game 5 until things got well and truly out of hand — the most out-of-hand we’ve seen in this series, on a number of fronts — and the Penguins threw it into neutral, resting the stars and generally not trying all that hard.

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Not being one to ascribe narratives to five-game samples, I’m not going to say Pittsburgh has slowly “figured out” Nashville or anything like that, especially given how much last change seems to matter in this series in terms of actual goals on the board. The home team keeps winning, and has outscored the visitor a mind-numbing 24-6.

Maybe that continues regardless of Ellis’s status, but not having him in the lineup only leads to more minutes for more marginal defenders.

And, quite likely, more goals for the Penguins.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All statistics via Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise noted.)