Predators defence causes troubles at both ends of rink

Ryan Ellis leads the Predators' defecemen with 12 points in the playoffs.
Ryan Ellis leads the Predators’ defecemen with 12 points in the playoffs.  (Mark Humphrey / The Associated Press)  

Sidney Crosby saw up close and personal just how good P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm are.

In the eyes of the Pittsburgh Penguins captain, the four core defencemen of the Nashville Predators lived up to their advance billing. They are quick, they move the puck, they get into lanes, they close the gap on the opposition, they create scoring chances.

“Once you get out there at game speed, they challenge you a little bit more to make those good plays and execute properly,” Crosby said.

Pittsburgh may have lucked their way to a 5-3 win in the opener of the Stanley Cup final, but the Penguins have seen how the Predators blue line can do it all.

So it’s no wonder the man behind the genius of the Nashville defence, assistant coach Phil Housley, is in such high demand.

The hall-of-fame player is on the short list for coaching vacancies in both Florida and Buffalo, teams waiting patiently for the Stanley Cup final to be over so they can interview him.

“It would be a tough blow to this team, this organization,” Ellis said. “Everyone loves him around the rink, and what he brings to this team. There are few people that can offer that knowledge with having played that many games, having that much success.”

It’s no surprise that organizations try to poach the best and the brightest from winning franchises. The Penguins have already lost assistant GM Jason Botterill to the Sabres, where he is the new general manager. Pittsburgh assistant coach Rick Tocchet is also said to be up for the head coaching job in Buffalo. Crosby would hate to lose him.

“He’s an emotional guy,” Crosby said. “He’s really good at making adjustments. He played an offensive role, so for forwards, it’s nice to have somebody see the game they way he does, and look at details and help guys out.”

But Housley is deemed to be the leading candidate for two organizations and, if he leaves, the loss will be felt hardest with Nashville’s blueliners.

“With Phil, I just think his impact hasn’t just helped me, but it’s helped everybody on our team, defence and forwards,” Subban said. “Specifically with the defencemen, working with them every day, Howie has a wealth of knowledge, being one of the best defencemen to ever play the game. His numbers, his career, what he’s accomplished speaks for itself.

“He knows when to say something and when not to. I think that says a lot about him . . . I just think he just has this calmness to him that he brings to our locker room.”

Housley played 1,495 regular season games in the NHL — one of them at the end of his career with the Maple Leafs in 2003 — amassing 1,232 points. It should not be a surprise his acolytes are also among the top point producers in the playoffs: Ellis (12 points), Josi (11), Subban (11) and Ekholm (eight) are all in the top eight in playoff scoring among defencemen.

“We know our defence core is going to have to be involved at both ends of the rink to be successful,” Ellis said. “We’re just trying to do our job.”

The Predators are good at a few things, among them moving the puck quickly out of their zone, and making plays in the neutral zone based on the trailing defenceman picking up the puck.

Ellis says the brilliance of using the defencemen on offence to the extent Nashville does forces the opponent to cover the blueliner, creating more space for forwards closer to the net in dangerous scoring areas.

“For us, it’s about taking away their defensive options and trying to limit the chances of their forwards,” Ellis said. “ (Housley) is so smart. He’s got so much knowledge. He’s sees the game a lot differently than a lot of people would.

“We take what he says and kind of roll with it. It’s his baby. It’s his thing. He’s done a terrific job with it.”