Sub­ban’s side­kick

Mat­tias Ekholm is the Nashville Preda­tors’ se­cret weapon against Crosby, Malkin

Cape Breton Post - - Sports - BY JONAS SIEGEL

Mat­tias Ekholm’s team­mates won­der why it took so long for the 27-year-old Nashville Preda­tors de­fence­man to get his due.

“You ask any­one in our room, he’s been an elite de­fence­man for years now,” said Ryan El­lis, Ekholm’s long­time de­fen­sive part­ner be­fore be­ing re­placed this sea­son by former Montreal Cana­dien P.K. Sub­ban. “If peo­ple cov­ered our games more they prob­a­bly would have seen it a lot eas­ier too.”

Make no mis­take, Sub­ban is the en­gine that makes the Preda­tors quasi-top pair go. But Ekholm, the 37th de­fence­man picked in the 2009 draft, has qui­etly emerged as a ca­pa­ble side­kick and se­cret weapon of sorts in the Preds’ quest to shut down Sid­ney Crosby and Ev­geni Malkin in the Stan­ley Cup fi­nal.

“That’s go­ing to be a key to this se­ries is to limit their of­fen­sive chances and limit their of­fen­sive game,” Ekholm said be­fore Game 1, a 5-3 loss for the Preds in which the Pen­guins were largely con­tained – go­ing 37 straight min­utes with­out a shot.

Ekholm and Sub­ban are Nashville’s best op­tion for lim­it­ing the Pen­guins scary 1-2 punch.

They formed maybe the NHL’s most ef­fec­tive de­fence pair­ing dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son. Ac­cord­ing to Cor­sica Hockey, the Preds gen­er­ated 55 per cent of five-on-five shot at­tempts when they were on the ice to­gether – a mark bet­tered by only Calgary’s Mark Gior­dano and Dougie Hamil­ton among duos that played more than 800 min­utes.

Ekholm and Sub­ban com­pletely shut­tered Ryan Get­zlaf in the West­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal (zero goals), con­tained Vladimir Tarasenko in the sec­ond round (zero goals at even-strength when the two were on the ice) and sti­fled Jonathan Toews in an open­ing round sweep (zero even-strength goals).

Preds coach Peter Lavi­o­lette thought it was ob­vi­ous to pair Sub­ban with Ro­man Josi when the former ar­rived from Montreal, but al­tered that plan af­ter only a few games.

“As it turned out, the num­bers and the eye­ball all pointed to Ro­man and Ryan be­ing a ter­rific pair (and) Ekholm and Sub­ban be­ing a re­ally, re­ally big, strong, tough pair to play against,” Lavi­o­lette said. “They’ve been able to han­dle a lot of min­utes and a lot of big op­po­nents.”

Ekholm, sport­ing a thick auburn-coloured play­off beard, re­mem­bers it tak­ing some time to find chem­istry with the former Nor­ris tro­phy win­ner. But he thought it helped that both had sim­i­lar styles. Each had no fear of join­ing the at­tack and could still de­fend ca­pa­bly.

Like Sub­ban, Ekholm is also large at six-foot-four and 215 pounds, and maybe his great­est gift is be­ing able to move like some­one smaller.

Fel­low Swede and Preda­tors team­mate Vik­tor Arvids­son thinks Ekholm, a for­ward grow­ing up, might be one of the finest skaters at his po­si­tion.

“A guy can’t skate by him be­cause he’s so good at skat­ing – his mo­bil­ity is re­ally good. And he’s also a big guy – he’s strong – so that makes it even harder for a for­ward,” Josi said.

He added that Ekholm, a mod­est of­fen­sive con­trib­u­tor (eight points in the play­offs), ef­fec­tively em­ployed his stick as a de­fen­sive tool and made a qual­ity first pass out of the Nashville zone.

Preda­tors gen­eral man­ager David Poile knew he had some­thing af­ter Ekholm’s sec­ond full NHL sea­son, sign­ing him for six years al­most US$23 mil­lion. Poile was also ad­mit­tedly com­fort­able deal­ing promis­ing re­gard­ing Seth Jones be­cause he had Ekholm – as well as El­lis – be­hind Josi and We­ber, then still the team’s cap­tain.

Af­ter av­er­ag­ing a ca­reer-high 23 min­utes dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, Ekholm is up to 25 and a half so far in the play­offs. In Game 1 against the Pen­guins, he logged 25 min­utes, in­clud­ing six-plus at even-strength against Crosby and al­most eight against Malkin.

Ekholm fin­ished the night at 67 per cent pos­ses­sion, though he was also the vic­tim of two bad bounces, which ended up in the net. The sec­ond saw Nick Bonino fire a harm­less shot off the rush which Pekka Rinne poke-checked di­rectly off Ekholm.

THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Nashville Preda­tors de­fence­man Mat­tias Ekholm, right, checks Pittsburgh Pen­guins for­ward Conor Sheary to the ice dur­ing Game 1 of the Stan­ley Cup Fi­nals on Mon­day.

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