Fang Features: Predators Top Line Challenged by Physicality in Loss

VandyRadio Sports Director Max Herz is a credentialed media member for the Nashville Predators. He’ll be covering the team all season long, producing The Home Ice Advantage, an all-hockey radio show, every Friday at 5 PM on VandyRadio and writing about the team’s performance in his series of Fang Features. Follow him on Twitter @MaxHerzVU for Preds updates and inside access.

As the top three point scorers on the Predators’ roster through 25 games, Mike Ribeiro, Filip Forsberg, and James Neal have overcome most of the resistance thrown their way in their lengthy stint as linemates on Nashville’s premier forward unit.

In a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, that line faced some hard-hitting opposition in the form of Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell, and Daniel Carcillo. That trio, known for its physical play, made up the Hawks’ third line against the Preds.

Even with Nashville holding the last change at home, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville effectively line-matched his third unit with Nashville’s first through two periods. The results of this matchup were testier than anything the Preds’ sharpshooters had experienced together.

The first notable meeting between the two lines came just beyond ten minutes into the game, when Carcillo hounded Ribeiro through the neutral zone to slow the Predator attack. Just a few feet away, Shaw went out of his way to check Neal over the dasher boards and into the Blackhawks’ bench, giving Neal an extra shove after he had already landed on his opponents’ laps.

Chicago goalie Scott Darling froze the puck seconds later, and the Blackhawks’ grinders sought out more scrums following the whistle. Ribeiro shared some words with Shaw and Carcillo grabbed Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm, hoping for a fight. The Preds refused to participate, preferring to chase after the night’s first goal.

“These are really tough games. We’re a top team in this division and so are they,” said Forsberg after the loss. “Every game we play against them it’s a battle for the top spot in the division.”

The lines matched up for the remainder of the frame and collided again just as the first period horn sounded. With zeroes on the clock, Neal, Forsberg, Shaw, and Carcillo convened along the boards to jaw before heading to the locker room. Once again, the Preds scorers remained mature and refused to become physically involved, avoiding the penalty box.

Although the linemates remained penalty-free, the Hawks’ role players were able to keep them off the scoresheet. “It’s tough, they play a hard-nosed game, the whole team does. That was a problem.” Forsberg said. “I think we matched that, [Victor] Bartley had a good scrap there. I think we stood up pretty good in a physical way.”

The scrap he is referring to was a second period fight between Preds defenseman Victor Bartley and Bickell, after Bickell crashed into the Nashville crease following some minor contact with Neal. The first line stayed composed as Bartley fought the battle, giving the team a boost.

Down 2-0 to start the third period, Nashville’s shooters were able to get more chances as the line-matching stopped. The three linemates went without a shot in the first and registered just one total attempt on goal in the second, but bounced back while facing a wider variety of Chicago forwards with three shots in the third.

Forsberg reflected upon this disparity. “We didn’t really get that much zone time in the first two periods… [In the third period] we just tried to keep it a little more simple, try to get it deep and I think we found more success that way. Unfortunately we couldn’t find that late goal.”

Although the league’s rookie scoring leader says that “Every team in this league has four good lines, so you don’t pay that much attention to who you’re playing against,” the drop-off in shifts against the Shaw, Carcillo, and Bickell unit certainly changed things.

Coach Peter Laviolette admires how his top line took hits but stayed out of the box. “I don’t think the physicality of the game was a problem, getting the quality chances and the quality looks [was the problem], we wish we were able to generate more.”

Perhaps the team’s best line would have generated more quality chances in this battle for the Central if it had taken fewer shifts against one of the most physical lines in hockey.

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