NASHVILLE — The instant one of the Pittsburgh Penguins passes the puck to a teammate, one of the Nashville Predators closes in, taking away any time or space to operate.
The junkyard dog approach to hockey for the Stanley Cup Final debutants has a history: It is the Predators’ on-ice version of Stanley, the blue mutt with a bone clenched between his teeth. He’s the team mascot whose picture is stuck on the Predators’ locker-room door, now with two bandages commemorating playoff-ending injuries first to forward Kevin Fiala, then centre Ryan Johansen. The dog, its name tag hanging from a spiked collar, bares his teeth in photos on three walls inside, too.
Stanley is the symbol of how coach Peter Laviolette wanted his Predators to play this season. They responded with an attacking, never-stop approach that has helped Nashville go from the last team into the NHL playoffs to one that is two wins from a championship. The Predators are tied 2-2 with the Penguins with Game 5 coming up Thursday night in Pittsburgh.
“We definitely know what our identity is,” defenceman P.K. Subban said. “It’s kind of the dog-on-a-bone mentality. And we want to dictate the pace of the game, and we want to attack you in all three zones as a five-man unit and be tough to play against. And I think everybody on our team can skate, move the puck and make plays.”
Stanley is more than just a cartoon dog. The Predators also award the best player in each game a heavy chain as a reward, a hockey version of a game ball. The Predators in past years have given out a construction worker’s hard hat to recognize the best player in a game.
Defenceman Matt Irwin says Stanley shows exactly how the Predators want to play.
“If you think of Stanley and you look at him, his knees are bent, he’s in an athletic stance, his mouth’s drooling,” Irwin said. “It’s the intensity he brings, and that’s the kind of intensity we want to bring to our game every night.”
That’s exactly what Laviolette wanted when the Stanley concept was introduced months ago. Irwin said winning the big chain is a very cool honour, even though he’s won it only once this season.
“Obviously when you win the chain, it’s recognition from your teammates you contributed and you had a solid night,” Irwin said.
Photos of a menacing dog and a chain can only go so far, though. The Predators finished the regular season 16th in the NHL with 94 points. They knew they would be starting on the road in every series, and the Predators responded by winning the opener of their first three series.
Now they head to Pittsburgh needing to find a way to win in the home ice of the defending champions after dropping Games 1 and 2.
The Predators are 5-5 away from Nashville this post-season. They are getting production from everyone who hits the ice, with 19 different players scoring at least one goal — two shy of the NHL record of 21 held by the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers. They also have killed 24 of 25 penalties in the Stanley Cup Final.
In Game 1, Nashville became the first team to hold an opponent without a shot on goal in a period of a Final game since the NHL started tracking that statistic in 1957, and that drought lasted 37 minutes even though Pittsburgh pulled out a 5-3 win. In Game 3, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were held without a shot on goal in the same playoff game for the first time in their careers.
Mattias Ekholm said everything is designed to make opponents work hard and fellow defenceman Ryan Ellis noted that the hard work is required of the Predators, too.
“As much as it is about skill and speed and all that, it’s the work ethic, it’s the little things, and I think that’s kind of the idea behind that is doing the right thing and working as hard as we can,” Ellis said. “I mean working hard in a game trumps all no matter skill level or this or that.”