By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Three years ago, general manager David Poile let the only coach the Predators had ever known in Barry Trotz leave and hired Peter Laviolette to inject more offense into the Nashville lineup.
The payoff is coming with the NHL’s best start this postseason.
The Predators are 7-1 and the only undefeated team on home ice. They have gotten goals from a league-best 13 players, and they’re spreading the wealth around with seven players scoring game-winning goals.
The Predators are led by their top line with Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson combining for 21 points. The Nashville defensive corps also has a league-high eight goals to go with 14 assists. Ryan Ellis leads all defensemen with nine points and has the league’s longest point streak since 1998 at seven games.
Nashville stands just a win away from the first conference final in franchise history with a 3-1 series lead over St. Louis in their Western Conference semifinal after a 2-1 victory Tuesday night.
“It’s in our own hands, for sure,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said.
Credit Laviolette’s aggressive offensive scheme that lets everyone shoot at the net. The coach also has a knack for plugging players in and out of the lineup at the right time.
“It’s a five-man game in all zones, and conversely the offense won’t work 3-on-5,” Laviolette said of including defensemen in the attack. “If it’s just our three and five of their guys defending, we’re not going to create. There’s a fine line with that, but our guys do a pretty good job defending and taking care of that, and offensively five guys making sure we attack.”
During the regular season, the Predators tied for the league lead with 12 players scoring at least 10 goals. They also tied San Jose for the most points (181) scored by defensemen, led by Roman Josi with 49.
Laviolette has taken advantage of Nashville’s fast-skating blue liners, giving them the freedom to attack the net with the flow of the puck. They love to take advantage.
“Everyone right now is really putting an emphasis on getting up ice and getting those opportunities,” defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. “Both Ryan, P.K. (Subban), Yannik (Weber) and Matt (Irwin) are doing a great job. As a D-corps, we’re just trying to play our game and do it to our strength.”
The final piece came last June when Poile stunned the NHL by swapping captain and star defenseman Shea Weber to Montreal for Subban as part of an effort to add even more offense to the lineup. The former Norris Trophy winner had 40 points in 66 games during his first regular season in Nashville, and Subban has six points in eight games in these playoffs.
Subban said the key to the defensemen scoring so well is the ability to make the smart read in a second.
“Ultimately when you come back to the bench, whether you make a great play or you make a mistake, you got Lavi and you got (Hall of Fame defenseman) Phil Housley … who are correcting us,” Subban said of the Predators assistant coach who is the NHL’s fourth-ranked scoring defenseman. “I feel very confident coming back to the bench to know that if we’re not sure about something or make a mistake that it can be corrected.”
Then there’s Laviolette’s knack for putting in a player at just the right time.
Harry Zolerniczyk had only four points in 24 games during the regular season. Laviolette already has played him in six games in the first postseason of the 29-year-old left winger’s career. Zolnierczyk came through with his first playoff goal in a Game 2 victory over Chicago. He also has an assist and provided a key screen on Josi’s final goal in a 3-1 win in Game 3 against St. Louis.
Laviolette inserted veteran Vern Fiddler into the lineup for the first game against St. Louis, and Fiddler responded with the winning goal. Cody McLeod, who also sat out against Chicago, scored the winner Sunday.
Subban credits a group of players who have bought into what Laviolette wants.
“We don’t care who’s First Star at the end of the night,” Subban said. “Whoever gets the recognition, it’s just about how we’re playing, and everybody pulling in the right direction and we have that.”
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