The arrival of one of the Nashville Predators’ best defensive lines in the playoffs last year could not have come at a better time.
Last night, the Predators beat the Sabres 3-2 in their final road game of the season. They did so by putting together a nice defensive performance, even if it was against one of the weaker offensive teams in the league.
One key to that defensive performance was the effort of the Preds’ third line: Colton Sissons, Nick Bonino, and Austin Watson.
The Predators held the Sabres to only 48 shot attempts at even strength and only 28 shots on goal. Their best stretch was in the latter half of the 3rd period, after Ryan Johansen’s goal put the Predators up 3-2. The Sabres had very few quality chances late in the game and Pekka Rinne was up to stopping every one of them.
But it was the Sissons, Bonino, Watson line that was doing a lot of the great defensive work throughout the game.
“I thought the line was really good again for the purpose that we use them,” Peter Laviolette said after the game, while also crediting Austin Watson for his physical play in a return to the lineup. The Predators added Watson to the NHL roster after a conditioning stint in Milwaukee following his return from Stage 2 of the NHL’s Substance Abuse Program.
As far as how the third line was “used,” it’s pretty clear they are meant to be a “shutdown” line that is expected to carry a lot of defensive minutes. Out of fifteen zone starts they accumulated, ten were in the defensive zone and five were in the neutral zone. No other forward line had more than one defensive start in the game.
Despite this heavy defensive load, the third line managed a 75% shot attempt share and limited Buffalo to just one high danger chance (Kyle Okposo’s goal in the 1st period).
Familiar Chemistry, Familiar Roles
This dependable defensive usage from Sissons, Bonino, and Watson is something the Predators have had since last year in the playoffs.
With the Fiala-Turris-Smith line a no show, and the JOFA line handling top competition every night (with mixed results), the Sissons-Bonino-Watson line was excellent in it’s shutdown role last spring. In over 120 even strength minutes, they were deployed in the neutral and defensive zones 87% of the time. They had 95 defensive zone starts together, by far the most of any other group. They only managed a 43% shot attempt share, but given the minutes and the usage, that’s fine.
Despite Austin Watson missing a large portion of the season due to suspension, the line was reunited for over 147 minutes this year. Laviolette has used the third line in much the same way, giving them around 78% of their starts in the neutral and defensive zones.
This year, however, they’ve been a bit more effective in the shot share department, generating just over 49% of the shot attempts. They were already doing a lot of the grunt work for the Preds, now they are becoming a bit more puck possession friendly.
Then came last night, where that unit was knocking bodies around, blocking shots and tipping passes left and right in the defensive zone. Their work in the 3rd period and on the penalty kill was sensational. In the end, the unit finished with five hits, two shot attempts blocked, and one blocked shot. The NHL doesn’t track puck clearances (yet!) but I imagine the third line had the vast majority of those last night.
If the Predators are going to remain competitive this spring, particularly against top offensive teams like Winnipeg, St. Louis, Vegas, and San Jose, they will need a go-to defensive unit that can reliably shut down opposing forwards. As of now, it looks like they have rekindled a unit that can do just that.
— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —