It would be understandable for the Nashville Predators to have become defensive regarding questions about their offense, which have persisted almost from the start of the season.
Then again, there’s not much they can say.
At no time in their history have they had as much trouble scoring goals. Before they departed on their current five-game road trip they lost 2-1 in a shootout to the Minnesota Wild last Saturday. That was the 11th time they scored once or not at all and it raised their season total to 52 goals, the fewest by any Nashville team through the first 25 games of a season.
On top of that, they don’t seem to care.
“We only scored one in the game but so did [the Wild],” coach Barry Trotz said. “Sometimes we overlook that and say, ‘Well, we lost the game in a shootout.’ Yeah but if we get one goal and they get one goal … that’s sometimes how the game has to play out.
“There’s nothing evil about that. There’s nothing wrong about that. It’s just how the game plays out.”
The Predators have a history of a defense-first approach to hockey. It has served them well enough that they have made the playoffs seven of the last eight seasons and advanced beyond the first round in each of the last two.
This season, though, their offense has performed at historically low levels. Their goals-per-game pace through 25 contests translates to 171 goals in a full 82-game season, which are 12 fewer than the franchise record low of 183 set in 2002-03, when they had their previous 25-game low of 53.
In the seven full seasons since the lockout that canceled the entire 2004-05 campaign, only one team had fewer in a season. That was — coincidentally — Minnesota, which scored just 166 times in 2011-12.
“This year was totally different from the beginning of the season,” right wing Martin Erat said. “We knew we were going to play a different defense. We’ve played tight defense and we won the games like that a lot. … From the beginning of the season we were focused on the defense.”
It has shown.
Nashville has been among the league leaders in fewest goals allowed all season, and when goalie Pekka Rinne recorded his league-leading fifth shutout Tuesday at Dallas, no other goalie had more than three.
Even four goals against the Stars, though, were not enough to lift the Predators out of last place in goals per game. Stretches of six goals in five games (Jan. 24-Feb.2), two in three (Feb. 9-12) and eight in six (Feb. 22-March 4) tend to have a lasting impact.
“You don’t go out there and not try to score goals. I think that’s rather ridiculous,” center David Legwand said. “Every night we go out there we’re trying to score goals. Some games we got tons of chances, other games not so many. And then some games it doesn’t seem like you have chances but everything goes in.
“… We haven’t had really a good run of games. We need to get on a run where we’re scoring some goals and giving our goalies a chance to win us some hockey games. One goal a game is not going to be enough to win every night. Obviously, we need to get two, three, four goals a night and get on the right track.”
Maybe they don’t.
While no team since 2004-05 has made the playoffs in a season when it finished last in goals scored, there have been plenty that were among the bottom five and still managed to get to the postseason. Some even thrived.
Last season, for example, the Los Angeles Kings finished 29th out of the 30 teams with 188 goals scored but earned the eighth seed in the Western Conference. From there, of course, they rolled to the Stanley Cup.
Nine times in the post-lockout era teams have finished among the bottom five in goals scored yet made the playoffs, and at least one did so every season except 2010-11. Three even won their division and had home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
“This year we may be scoring a little less goals but we’re playing tighter defense,” Erat said. “It’s just the circle — it goes around. I think it helps to build the confidence in your defense. When you are comfortable playing in those situations — 1-1, 0-0, 1-0 going to the third — it’s always going to help you going into the playoffs.”
The Kings were the only ones of that group that actually made it to the finals. Florida finished 27th last year. Similarly, Montreal (tied for 26th in 2009-10), the New York Rangers (28th in 2008-09), Anaheim and New Jersey (27th and 26th in 2007-08) and Calgary (27th in 2005-06) all failed to make it out of the conference quarterfinals as well.
Still, the Predators express comfort in their current state of affairs.
“You look at any sport — I always go to football in football country — people think a good game would be 28-24, something like that,” Trotz said. “Then all of a sudden you have one of those real defensive battles and you have to win the game 14-10.
“Every game has an opportunity to win it. You have to win it different ways.”
For the Predators, the difference has been when they get the first goal, not how many they can add after that.
Following Monday’s victory they were one of just six teams with at least 10 victories when they scored the first goal and one of only two (Carolina was the other) without a regulation defeat when it scored first.
Conversely, they were one of just three teams (Calgary and Florida were the others) that had only one victory after they fell behind 1-0. Nashville’s three points (1-9-1) in such games were the fewest in the league.
“Some teams, if you have to chase them … it’s going to be 6-1 for them,” Trotz said. “It’s harder to chase the game than when you’ve got the lead or you’re in a 0-0 game. That’s a hard game, but when you’re down a goal you need two to win.”
Three times in the first 13 games of this season the Predators scored just once yet won.
Two of those games were decided in a shootout, just like last Saturday’s against the Wild. Nashville scored one. The opponent scored one. That’s just the way it has gone, and the Predators are OK with that.
“Defense wins you championships,” Trotz said. “There’s a lot of teams that have great offenses and haven’t got past the second round. Offense will win you games but defense can win you championships.”
A season-by-season look at the Nashville Predators’ goal totals through the first 25 games and how they ultimately fared:
GOALS IN FINAL
SEASON FIRST 25 RECORD
1998-99 58 28-47-7
1999-00 61 28-40-7-7
2000-01 61 34-36-9-3
2001-02 65 28-41-13-0
2002-03 53 27-35-13-7
2003-04 66 38-29-11-4
2005-06 72 49-25-8
2006-07 87 51-23-8
2007-08 72 41-32-9
2008-09 71 40-34-8
2009-10 59 44-27-11
2010-11 59 44-27-11
2011-12 66 48-26-8
2012-13 52 TBD
Playoff seasons in bold