In team sports, there's a defensive strategy that's been in play for decades, colloquially known as “anybody but him.”
In baseball, teams intentionally walking Barry Bonds, lest risking the San Francisco Giants slugger beat them with the long ball. In basketball, Michael Jordan saw double-teams and defenses inviting anyone else in a Chicago Bulls jersey to shoot. In football, lineman and linebackers crowded the line of scrimmage, daring the Cleveland Browns to not hand the ball of to Jim Brown.
Hockey is a little bit trickier. The choreographed chaos makes it more difficult to isolate the ‘him.’ For the better part of the last decade, penalty kills have (unsuccessfully) tried to make anybody except Alex Ovechkin shoot on the Washington Capitals power play. Back to the drawing board they go.
The real problem in applying this strategy against the Pittsburgh Penguins is that there are two ‘hims’—Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin—who play on different lines.
But with Pittsburgh back in the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year and fourth time in 11 years of the Crosby-era Penguins, it may be coming up against its toughest defensive matchup to date in the Nashville Predators.
Nashville has proven to be something of a factory for quality NHL defensemen. That the Predators have the league’s top blue line is somewhat miraculous considering this is the same franchise that let Ryan Suter walk in free agency and traded Seth Jones and Shea Weber in the past 15 months.
Yet, here are the Predators, with P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm on one pairing and Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi on another, the kind of depth that could on paper slow down the Penguins’ depth.
And this has been Nashville’s answer all postseason to the offensive questions being thrown at them. In the first round, Josi and Ellis bottled up Patrick Kane, and Ekholm and Subban shut down Jonathan Toews. In Round Two, Vladimir Tarasenko ran into Subban and Ekholm and Josi and Ellis matched up against Vladimir Sobotka. In the Conference Final, Ryan Kesler had the pleasure of taking shifts against Josi and Ellis, and the lead Ducks, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, went up against Subban and Ekholm.
Where most teams can play to matchups, especially on home ice, and bank on doing damage against a second-fiddle defensive pairing, Nashville’s ‘B’ blue liners would be earning an ‘A’ on just about any other team.
This has been the pitfall of trying to stop the Pittsburgh Penguins with Crosby and Malkin on separate lines. Sending out your shutdown defensemen against one means running the risk of deploying watered-down competition against the other.
Since 2008, Crosby and Malkin have played in 24 playoff series, and of those, once has each forward's most two common opposition defensemen been the same.
In 2009, when the Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup, Malkin won the Conn Smythe, but Crosby earned the privilege of matching up against NicklasLidstrom and Brian Rafalski for seven games. In previous rounds, Crosby saw the majority of his minutes against Washington’s Mike Green and Philadelphia’s KimmoTimonen. Malkin scored 14 goals and 36 points in 24 games, the only player in the past 24 years to reach 35 points in a singe playoff.
The nightmare predicament might not even be a bad dream for Nashville, with top-end defensemen filling out its first and second pairings. All four defensemen have goals-for percentages of 53 percent or higher in the playoffs, via NaturalStattrick.com.
The Predators have allowed 1.73 goals-against per 60 minutes, the second-lowest among any team to advance out of the first round. Nashville, in 16 playoff games, has conceded six fewer 5-on-5 goals (23) than the Anaheim Ducks, the team it just eliminated, did in 17 playoff games (29).
Of the 12 teams to have appeared in a Conference Final the past three years, Nashville's 23 five-on-five goals against up to this point are the fewest, four fewer than the 2014-15 Anaheim Ducks in the same number of games.
How Nashville does it is with speed. Teams try to do things as fast as possible in today's NHL and the skating ability of Nashville’s back end allows them to defend effectively in every area of its game.
The Blackhawks attempt to create offense off the rush here, Artemi Panarin carrying the puck across the blue line with Artem Anisimov. Josi and Ellis concede a controlled entry, maintaining a decent gap. Josi is already opening his shoulders and hips toward the near boards, forcing Panarin to carry the puck out wide.
When Panarin gains the blue line, Josi quickly closes the space. The play is being funneled toward the face-off circle, keeping Panarin away from the inner slot. Josi keeps his body distance but reaches out with his stick, not giving Panarin time on the puck, but also keeping himself in good position to keep up should Panarin attempt to go below the goal line.
When Panarin does finally shoot, it comes from nearly 30 feet away from a bad angle. Josi is still in tight defensively, but most importantly, gives his goaltender a clear line of sight to make a save. The Predators have excelled at putting Pekka Rinne in good positions to stop the puck.
On this sequence against the Blues, Ellis makes defensive plays in all three zones to deny St. Louis any chance to make a play.
It begins with the Blues trying to quickly reload by coming back on a puck and quickly passing it back across the red line. But Ellis reads the play, comes up along the wall and knocks the puck away from Sobotka.
With the puck back in the Blues’ end, St. Louis tries to break out with Alex Pietrangelo attempting to play the puck up the wall to Sobotka. But again it's Ellis, making a read and pinching, in this case lower than one of Nashville's forwards, to disrupt a pass.
Finally, not only does Ellis retreat back to his position in time, he meets Alex Steen at the blue line, forcing him to curl back and leave the puck. Then Ellis skates toward his crease, clearing out Jori Lehtera and helping Nashville clear the zone.
This defensive style will be a paradigm shift for the Penguins versus the Eastern Confernce Final. After Ottawa sat back in the neutral zone and played with virtually four skaters below the puck, Nashville will attempt to constantly be pressuring Pittsburgh, its defensemen much more active than the Senators'.
When Game 1 begins Monday night in Pittsburgh, Predators coach Peter Laviolette will have to submit his lineup card first. In the three Game 1's the Penguins have played this postseason, coach Mike Sullivan has elected to put out Sidney Crosby for the opening face-off.
And whether Nashville chooses to deploy Ellis and Josi, or Subban and Ekholm, there will be a worthy pair waiting in the wings for when Malkin hops over the boards.