The Nashville Predators fell to the Carolina Hurricanes 5-2 in Game 1 of their playoff series last night, in a game highlighted by heavy hitting, back-and-forth scoring, and an unfortunate number of penalties for the Preds.
Going into the series, everyone knew that the Preds would need to match Carolina’s speed with physicality and size. But not many were expecting the Hurricanes to match the Preds’ physical game, beating the Preds in a way that they did not expect.
The Hurricanes had 56 hits to the Preds’ 49. Their lineup still flashed plenty of speed, but it was their physical nature that led them to three third period goals breaking through a 2-2 tie that Nashville fought hard to maintain.
Without a doubt, the Hurricanes showed everyone they are going to be even tougher to beat than originally thought.
But one thing that definitely stands out from Nashville’s perspective: John Hynes’ lineup decisions factored directly into the result of the game for various reasons.
John Hynes goes with size, loses gamble
John Hynes had a lot of options in configuring his Game 1 lineup.
He could install more speed at wing and defense with guys like Rocco Grimaldi and Dante Fabbro, or he could stick with bigger, physical guys that can body up Carolina’s smaller forwards.
He went with the latter, putting a 3rd pairing of Ben Harpur and Erik Gudbranson out there, along with keeping both Tanner Jeannot and Mathieu Olivier in the same lineup.
While the Jeannot/Olivier decision is easier to defend (both have been great over the last two months), the bottom pairing decision ended up hurting the team just by being out there.
Harpur and Gudbranson were easily the worst pairing of the night, though none of the Preds’ defense played particularly well. Here’s a look at the 5v5 expected goals for and against chart from Hockey Viz (@ineffectivemath) that illustrates this well:
The other major decision that fell flat for John Hynes was playing Viktor Arvidsson instead of Eeli Tolvanen, less because of Arvidsson’s play on the ice, more because they could have used Tolvanen’s power play punch.
You rarely see lineup decisions so obviously affect the result of a game. Usually they get hidden by some other factor.
But not having Tolvanen (0-3 on PP so far) and that brutal goal allowed by the 3rd pairing (after a brilliant save by Saros to bail them out) loom very large.
— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) May 18, 2021
The Preds found themselves with three golden power play opportunities in the game, all of which were at crucial times in the game (either with the game tied or within one goal) and the Preds could do almost nothing at all. They generated only two shots on goal during their 5:28 minutes on the power play and zero high danger chances.
Eeli Tolvanen makes the Preds’ power play better. He’s an elite shooter and he’s proven that this year, leading the team in power play goals.
While Tolvanen hasn’t been the same player since returning from injury on April 18th, all it takes is one power play goal to change the direction of a playoff game. He didn’t get that opportunity and the coach is ultimately to blame for that.
Hynes defends lineup decisions
After the game, John Hynes was asked about his lineup in general, mostly in the context of whether we might see changes in Game 2.
Hynes was steadfast in defending his lineup, mostly citing the team keeping it close going into the 3rd period.
“So, guys, look, we came in it was 2-2 going into the 3rd period,” Hynes said after the game. “You have to make lineup decisions. Back to Jared’s question, we were physical, it was hard, it was a hard fought game, it was 2-2 going into the 3rd period. You look at a couple of goals, they were breakdowns on goals.”
Next, John Hynes defends the lineup decisions by saying it was 2-2 going into the 3rd period.
— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) May 18, 2021
Hynes emphasized multiple times throughout the press conference that his team played hard and had a chance to win the game in the end.
“We can talk about the lineup all you want, but we played physical, we played hard, it was a competitive game, and we didn’t find a way to win.”
It’s probably excessive to place all of the blame for the loss on John Hynes’ decisions. As I mentioned earlier, Carolina proved how hard they are to beat, stepping up their game in the playoffs to become a fast and physical team. Nashville was already in a tough position taking on one of the best teams in the NHL.
But you don’t expect your coach to make a difficult situation more difficult, which he did by putting several slower players in the lineup against a fast team.
All season long, Hynes and the Preds have shown they can adapt to adverse situations. They’ve had a “next man up” mentality, with young players stepping up their game, veterans playing above their level, and a more consistent identity as a team that won’t get pushed around by other teams.
But last night, and in the 3rd period especially, the Nashville Predators just didn’t have it.
Will we see changes to the Preds’ lineup ahead of Game 2 on Wednesday? Probably. Will John Hynes defend them regardless of the result? Same answer.
— Featured image via James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports —