When the defensemen join the attack, the Predators win

When Mattias Ekholm and his D-men cohorts join the play, the Predators win. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Down early Saturday night in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, desperately needing a win against the defending-champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the offensive floodgates opened for the Nashville Predators. The onslaught consisted of five goals over 27:19 in Nashville's emphatic 5-1 win that cut Pittsburgh's lead in the best-of-seven series to 2-1.

In the biggest win in Predators franchise history, it's no coincidence that the run opened with a power-play goal by one defenseman, Roman Josi, and ended with a power-play goal courtesy of another defenseman, Mattias Ekholm.

After scoring four goals in total through the first two games of the finals, it became plainly clear that Nashville's defensemen were going to need to keep generating offense if the team hoped to even the series with a win in Game 4, which they will host at Bridgestone Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET).

"Our system allows us defensemen to jump up in the play and make something happen," Josi said. "It's important. It's part of our identity, part of our system. We want our D's to be active and jump up in the play and join the rush. It's a big part of our game."

Ekholm assisted on Nashville's game-tying goal 5:51 into the second period, but it was Josi, arguably the best all-around player on the Predators' vaunted defensive corps, who led the way in Game 3.

"For me, it's about somebody who's as good at any point on the ice, both defensively and offensively, and anywhere in between that," Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette said of Josi. "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. That kind of takes the restriction off of just playing on the blue line in the offensive zone."

Josi masterfully handled all areas of the ice Saturday. Tasked much of the night with shadowing Sidney Crosby, Josi demonstrated he was able to energize the Predators' attack while effectively shutting down the Penguins' captain. In the end, Josi collected a goal and two assists while Crosby was held without a shot on goal.

"Everyone has to be involved at both ends of the ice, defensively and offensively. Jos' goal was a big goal for us to get us in the right direction. Ekky's to cap it off was another big goal," said defenseman Ryan Ellis. "We got some guys that like to shoot it, like to get up in the rush. You saw Josi leading the rush probably four or five times [in Game 3]. At times, that's what we need to push that pace."

With 14 goals combined, Nashville's defensemen have certainly pushed the pace. In Game 1, it was Ellis' power-play goal that sparked the Predators' comeback from a three-goal deficit. In their series-opening win against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference finals, it was Ekholm's aggressive pinch that led directly to James Neal's overtime goal. After falling behind 1-0 early in Game 6 of their second-round series against the St. Louis Blues, it was Josi who ventured deep into the Blues' zone before tying the game from a shot below the faceoff dot. That goal awakened the Predators' offense and ultimately helped the team advance to the next round.

The Predators are good when their defense goes deep. They're even better when they score.

After winning Game 3 against Pittsburgh, the Predators are now 9-3-0, with one loss coming in overtime, when at least one defenseman scores a goal. They have a perfect 5-0 record when Josi scores.

"For us, that's the game. We're a big part of our team and the way our team plays," said P.K. Subban, the fourth of Nashville's four horsemen on defense. "We're going to have to continue to move our feet and move the puck off the ice. When we can contribute offensively, it obviously makes a big difference."

The dynamic skill set demonstrated by Nashville's top four defensemen hasn't been restricted to offense. Whereas defenses have typically relied on extra physicality bordering on assault while playing Pittsburgh's star players this postseason, Nashville's defense has been able to rely more on speed and skill in defending superstars such as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.

Crosby and Malkin were both held without a shot in Game 3, while Kessel was held without a shot on goal in Game 1 and has just one assist so far in the series.

"We're just trying to play them hard. They're guys that can make things happen out there every shift they're out there," Josi said. "I wouldn't say we're the toughest defense with a lot of big guys that can really play hard. We're trying to skate well and get sticks in there and just play them hard."

That's not to say that the 2017 Stanley Cup Final has lacked physicality. With each successive game, the animosity between these teams has only grown. It erupted in an especially chippy third period in Game 3 during which the Penguins and Predators combined for 70 penalty minutes. With the clock winding down and the game out of reach, it appeared that Pittsburgh was looking to get in the face of Nashville's defense.

Things got especially heated following an exchange between Patric Hornqvist and Ekholm that resulted in both players receiving game misconducts with 4:22 left in the game. Less than two minutes later, Penguins forwards Kessel and Matt Cullen both went after Predators defenseman Matt Irwin. Kessel received a two-minute cross-checking penalty on the play while Cullen earned his own game misconduct.

Having willed their team back into this series, the Predators' defense expects some of that nastiness to carry over to Game 4.

"It was a 5-1 game. You expect it to get a little chippy out there. I'm sure it won't be any different out there [in Game 4]," Josi said. "All you can do is try to stay calm and try to stay disciplined. Try to stay between the whistles. Even if it's a 5-1 game, you still want to play them hard because you know you have another game in two days. Just try to keep playing the same way and keep playing hard."