Sunday, March 11, 2012
If a casual hockey fan watches a Nashville Predators game, there are several different things that may stand out to them from afar. Pekka Rinne is usually lights out in goal, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are perhaps the most talented defensive pairing in the NHL and yes, Mike Fisher is married to Carrie Underwood.
Martin Erat, however, often goes unnoticed. He leads the Predators in scoring with 49 points in 60 games played on the year so far, and is a consistent force on a team that ranks ninth in the NHL in goals for. He also has a special gift that allows him to consistently produce year in and year out.
At 201 pounds, Erat’s body type and balance on his skates allow him to be a master of puck possession. His strength on the puck is something that has been a stable factor in his game for several years now, and it’s a big reason for his consistent offensive production for Nashville.
“It’s what he does. He’s a puck possession kind of guy. His legs and core are really strong, and it’s tough to knock him off the puck. Obviously, playing against him in practice, guys in here compete with each other and challenge so you get to see for yourself how sturdy he is,” Weber said.
The Czech Republic native grew up playing a European style of hockey that has been traditionally known for being fast-paced and friendly toward offensively-centered players. In a hockey environment that relies heavily on puck possession, Erat has been used to focusing on his puck control since he began playing hockey.
“I grew up with it. That’s just how I play. That’s my style of game,” Erat said. “When you’ve got the puck, the opposition can’t score goals.”
Being strong on the puck is one of the most underrated attributes in the NHL. Part of the reason that players like Erat and Pavel Datsyuk have success in the league is because they are so hard to separate from the puck, which allows them to create more chances offensively.
Puck protection takes a combination of skill and being physically gifted. It’s one thing to have the hands to be able to dangle past a defender to create space, but it takes a certain amount of strength to be in full control of the play while two or three defenders are whacking away at the puck. Like anything else in hockey, puck possession is something that can be improved upon, but having the physical strength is imperative.
“I guess it’s something you could work on. It certainly helps being heavy on the puck if you know how to protect yourself. I think it just comes down to if you want to win the battle more and if you’re strong enough. It’s just having that competitive edge as well as strength,” said Predators forward Colin Wilson.
Puck possession plays a major role in the makeup of any hockey game. Having control of the puck for the majority of the game limits the opposition from being able to sustain any consistent offense. Without that strength on the puck in the offensive zone, things can quickly go haywire. Erat brings that reliability to the Predators on a nightly basis.
“Strength on the puck is important to anybody in the game because there’s a lot of tight gaps, there’s people around you. You can’t expose the puck. That’s a recipe for turnovers. That’s a recipe for transitional plays. That’s a recipe for no forecheck or flow,” said Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz.
Nashville’s top line of Erat, Fisher and Sergei Kostitsyn has been the most reliable offensive option for the Predators this season. That productivity all starts with being able to control the puck in the offensive zone, which is an area where Erat thrives. His strength on the puck, combined with his great passing ability, open up lanes for Fisher and Kostitsyn to work with.
“He’s a guy that’s got great speed and he’s really shifty, makes great plays and works real hard. He’s really smart, and he’s hard to get the puck off of. That kind of slows things down at times and allows us to get in position for him. He usually seems to find us,” Fisher said.
With the time that Erat, Fisher and Kostitsyn have spent together on a line so far this season, they have become very comfortable playing with each other. With the ability to wear the opposition down with their puck control, they have been a reliable offensive group for the Predators on almost a nightly basis.
“I think we’ve managed to get a little bit better and get comfortable with each other,” Fisher said. “Those guys bring a lot of skill and speed and can make some great plays. We’ve managed to have a lot of fun out there, and we’ve just got to make sure we keep it going,”
“It’s been great. We are controlling the puck and trying not to give the puck up for free. Both guys are playing well, and we’re just trying to complement each other on the ice. We are doing a pretty good job with that, and we have to keep going and play strong for the team,” Erat said.
Erat is having one of the best seasons of his career this year from a statistical standpoint, but he does so many things for Nashville besides racking up the goals and assists. His ability to maintain possession of the puck is just one of those things, and it’s been absolutely critical for them so far this season.
(Photo Credit: Leanne Charles)