Nashville leaning heavily on defense corps against Penguins

FILE - In this Oct. 1, 2016, file photo, Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban warms up before an NHL hockey preseason game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, in Nashville, Tenn. Predators general manager David Poile updates the health of All-Star defenseman Subban on Monday, Jan. 2, 2017, a day after Nashville placed him on injured reserve with an upper-body injury. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Roman Josi downplays the production of the Nashville Predators’ defensemen as simply the product of their system.

“Our system allows defensemen to jump on the play and make something happen in the offensive zone, too,” Josi said. “And our forwards (are) doing a great job getting pucks to us, and yeah, tipping pucks, getting screens from that, and our job is just to get the puck through.”

Yes, the Nashville Predators lean on their defensemen not only to smother the NHL’s best attackers, but also to score in bunches. They combined for five points Saturday night to help Nashville pull within 2-1 of the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final.

Game 4 is Monday night.

Josi leads the unit with 14 points, followed by defensive partner Ryan Ellis with 12 and P.K. Subban with 11. Mattias Ekholm had a goal and an assist Saturday night for 10 points, making Nashville the third team in NHL history with four defensemen to reach double-digits in the same postseason, along with the 1984 Edmonton Oilers and 1993 Los Angeles Kings.

On top of that, the Predators helped hold Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin without a shot on goal for the first time in their lengthy careers in the same playoff game.

“Amazing, amazing job,” Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “I mean, they been doing that all playoffs long, so it’s obviously our backbone is our defense. And they do a tremendous job defensively and creating offense.”

When general manager David Poile started putting this expansion franchise together nearly 20 years ago, he focused on building from the goaltender out to the defense. Poile hired coach Peter Laviolette three years ago, and the coach brought in a system that allows everyone but the goalie to join the rush and try to score.

The Predators tied for the league lead with 181 points from their defensemen this season, and their 50 points this postseason tops the NHL with 14 goals and 36 assists. The Penguins’ defense corps has nine goals with 41 points in the playoffs.

Josi, who has six goals in these playoffs, had three points in the second period Saturday night with a goal and two assists. He became the first defenseman with three points in a period in a Stanley Cup Final game since Larry Murphy had three assists for Pittsburgh on May 23, 1991, against Minnesota.

“As you can see by the way we play, our defensemen have the green light to add to the rush or lead the rush, take charge offensively in the offensive zone,” Laviolette said Sunday. “That kind of takes the restriction off of just playing on the blue line in the offensive zone.”

The defensemen have helped Nashville outshoot Pittsburgh in each of the first three games. They’ve also stuck so closely to the Penguins that Pittsburgh went 37 minutes without a shot in Game 1. The Penguins also have managed just four shots on goal in 13 power plays in the series with just one goal with the man advantage.

“They just skate themselves out of trouble,” Crosby said. “They don’t spend a lot of time in their end. So I think the times we do get the puck … we’ve got to challenge them and force them to play defense.”

So far, Josi and Ellis have gone against Crosby often, with Subban and Ekholm hitting the ice against Malkin. Crosby has just three assists with no goal yet despite having 23 points this postseason. Malkin has two goals.

“This coaching staff has never been one to take our team out of the flow to try to chase matchups,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “We believe in the group we have. We know they can play against anybody. When they’re at their best, regardless of who their opponent is, they’re going to have their hands full.”

The Predators are 8-1 at home this postseason, while the Penguins are 13-2 in the playoffs coming off a loss under Sullivan. Goalie Matt Murray, who allowed five goals in the span of 15 shots, also has never lost when starting a game either after a Pittsburgh loss (9-0) or a playoff loss of his own (7-0).

Nashville will be leaning again on its defense corps to try to send this series back to Pittsburgh all tied up.

“All of our defensemen, if I’m being honest, even from a team concept defensively, it’s been pretty good in the playoffs to this point,” Laviolette said.