I have missed hockey, but what we witnessed on Saturday was a bit unpleasant. The Nashville Predators beat the Dallas Stars 4-1 in a mostly uneventful game. The Stars didn't really generate many shots, and most of the ones they did generate were borderline scoring chances at best. The Predators weren't much better, but they were better.
One problem was a strategic element of the Predators game plan which was mentioned in the first intermission on the broadcast. Brent Severyn was the main analyst to make note of the tactic although Craig Ludwig was discussing it too. When the opposition has the puck, the Predators tend to drop both wingers back defensively into a 1-4 neutral zone alignment.
Predators in red, Stars in blue, puck with LW
This is one strategic aspect of the Predators team game that reflects what they are all about. Despite the influx of offensive talent and new head coach, the Predators are still a team focused on strong team defense. This situation didn't always arise, but the Predators focused on making sure they had numbers back defensively by having the forwards track back tightly just about every time the Stars had the puck.
The broadcast pointed out that this made the Stars turn to dumping the puck in, which isn't entirely accurate. That is definitely the goal of stacking your own blue line, but it didn't quite work out that way. The Stars only dumped the puck in (outside of line changes) six times in the first period—all in the first half of the period—and they only dumped the puck in about six more times the rest of the game.
The main result that occurred is that the Stars got congested in the neutral zone and at the attacking blue line, leading to tons of turnovers. The Predators pressured the puck carrier immediately and almost always had support in place. You can see how quickly that can bog down an offense.
Predators in red, Stars in blue, puck with LW
More often than not, the Stars defensemen were back a bit further than this, but the point still remains. The Stars didn't have much room to operate and when they had room, the result was for one player to go it alone. Sometimes the Predators isolated the puck carrier, but oftentimes the Stars did exactly what Nashville wanted them to do.
In the first image we see the situation that often presented itself to the Stars offensively: they would get to the Predators line completely outnumbered and then watch as the offense fizzled out.
When the Predators weren't able to fully get back, the Stars played into their hands way too often.
When the Predators were able to get back, they were very aggressive in going towards the puck carrier. Mike Ribeiro took out Cody Eakin in the next image and you can see just how congested things got at the Stars offensive blue line when they came up as a unit.
If Eakin were able to move the puck over, the Stars could have had an opportunity to generate a scoring chance, but nine times out of ten the Stars were unable to avoid the Predators pressure.
Val Nichushkin got caught several times—this is but one example. The Predators LD and LW have Nichushkin completely boxed in and the RD makes Erik Cole irrelevant to the play. The only option Val really has is to chip the puck around the LD for Cole to retrieve it, but the coverage on Cole is so tight that it isn't a particularly attractive option.
At times the Stars activated their defensemen in an effort to catch the Predators without numbers back. Brenden Dillon and Trevor Daley were the most notable participants. Even Daley managed to get caught up in his own one man show by trying to do too much.
The type of shots the Stars were generating when they were able to generate anything were usually poor. The Daley image is an example of another problem the Stars faced: they had virtually no ability to get into the prime scoring areas outside of a stretch in the middle of the second period when the Tyler Seguin unit generated several opportunities.
Ultimately though, too many of the Stars shots looked like this Seguin offering from the third period.
Seguin was completely alone on the attack, on the exterior, and with no one going to the net. This shot had virtually no chance of going into the net. The Stars have too much offensive talent for this to be a continuing issue all season. The offensive creativity showed flashes and the Predators aggressiveness could have easily bitten them on several occasions.
For instance, this entry somehow didn't result in a shot for the Stars.
The Stars hit a couple of posts. Anders Lindback gave up one or two soft goals depending on how nice you choose to be. The fourth goal was an empty netter. The Stars were unable to capitalize on the Predators aggressiveness. This is still a very good team, but they have some things to work on. With a little luck, that game is a win instead of a 4-1 loss.
One of the tweaks might actually to be to dump the puck in more often. Teams generate two to three times more shots when they carry the puck in versus dump it in. The Stars are predominantly a skilled team that is going to focus on carrying the puck in, but to some degree this negates the massive advantage they have over most teams in the speed department.
Dumping the puck in isn't always bad. The goal of entering the zone is to increase your expected shots. More information needs to be tracked, but there are undoubtedly some situations where it makes more sense to dump the puck in than carry it. Several of the images above likely fit that description, and some of the shots they did generate (the Seguin attempt for one) were borderline pointless.
Another aspect is predictability. After a certain point the Predators knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Stars were going to carry the puck in. It takes the element of surprise away from an attack. The Predators knew what was coming. In football, teams often try to split their offensive gameplans close to 50/50 between running and passing plays to keep opponents on their heels and open up other aspects of their game (play action passes, screen passes, draws, etc.). The Stars inability to vary their attack made them too predictable.
The Stars got too one dimensional offensively and drifted too far into the "one-man-army" camp. They'll fix it. This team is too talented to play like this for long and the type of game the Predators played always seems to give them fits anyway.