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VOL. 41 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 12, 2017

Ellis’ ‘silencer’ shots help Preds make playoff noise

By John Glennon

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Nashville Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis shoots and scores against the St. Louis Blues during the third period in Game 2 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series in St. Louis.

-- Ap Photo/Jeff Roberson

When it comes to describing Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis’ growth over the years, it’s easy to stop at the beard.

Orange in color, hemp-thick in texture and over five months in the works, Ellis’ man-mane falls from his chin like a hair curtain trying to cover the crest of his jersey.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Predators goalie Pekka Rinne says. “You really don’t see that kind of beard too often, so full like that.”

To look no further than Ellis’ great wall of whiskers, however, is to vastly under-appreciate the strides he’s made as a player and person.

The 5-10, 180-pound Ellis is one of the biggest reasons the Predators have knocked off both the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues in the playoffs, advancing to the Western Conference Final at Anaheim (8 p.m. Friday night opener) for the first time in the team’s 18-season history.

After increasing his responsibilities all season long following last summer’s trade of Shea Weber, Ellis has found a way to ratchet up his performance even more in the postseason. He’s tied for the team lead in playoff goals (four) and points (nine) through two rounds, and Ellis recently tied a franchise record with at least a point in seven straight postseason contests.

“At both ends of the ice, he does everything for us,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette says. “He plays terrific defense, he sacrifices his body all the time to block shots, and he’s just playing a really strong, strong defensive game for us. Offensively, he’s getting his shot off, he’s getting it on net and it’s finding the back of the net – a 200-foot game.”

The offensive side of the game has always been a strength for the 26-year-old Hamilton, Ontario, native. In his final season of junior hockey, Ellis piled up 101 points (24 goals, 77 assists), which led the Predators to pick him in the first round of the 2011 draft.

One of his greatest strengths is a wickedly hard slapshot, a blast that Ellis manages to launch despite the fact he’s one of the smallest players on the roster. The shot may not be quite as powerful as that of Weber, who’s recognized as having the fastest in the game, but it’s not far off.

“The guys who are really good shooting the puck, they don’t need to be the strongest or biggest guy,” Rinne says. “It’s more about technique and repetition. When he gets a chance to pound a one-timer, he’s always had a big, booming shot.”

Called upon this season to help fill Weber’s goal-scoring absence from the blue line, Ellis unleashed the cannon like never before, totaling career highs in goals (16) and points (38).

Playoff beard come in a variety of thicknesses and shades, but few rival that of Ryan Ellis, described as “pretty awesome” by teammate Pekka Rinne.

“It’s funny about his shots – they don’t make a big sound,” Rinne explains. “It’s almost like a silencer. It’s weird. It fools (goalies) a lot of times. But it comes fast.”

It’s on the defensive side of the rink that Ellis has really improved as a professional.

A good example is his work on the team’s penalty-killing unit, which requires gritty, intelligent players to make up for the short-handed team’s disadvantage. Over the last two seasons, Ellis has seen his average time on the penalty kill increase from 39 seconds per game in 2014-15 to 2:36 in 2016-17.

“For me in younger years, I never thought as much about the defensive side of the game,” Ellis points out. “I mean, if you had the puck, how are they going to score, right?

“But there’s good players and good teams in this league. You’re not always going go to have the puck, so you have to be good on both sides of it. It took me a couple years to really figure out how important that was.”

Ellis has also developed an uncanny knack of figuring out what opponents are going to do next with the puck, which allows him to disrupt passing lanes and step in front of shots. He sacrificed his body enough to record a team-high 137 blocked shots during the regular season and is leading the way again in the playoffs with 32.

“He reads the play ahead of time and it seems like he’s always a step ahead in his brain,” Predators defenseman Roman Josi says. “That makes him so good. He reads plays so well, intercepts pucks and is just always in the right position. He always seems to know where the puck is going.”

Adds Ellis: “Growing up, I wasn’t the biggest guy, so I couldn’t just run people over. For me, it was about thinking the game faster or in a different way than other players. So I’ve really (done that) for a long time.”

What’s harder to quantify with numbers is Ellis’ maturation as a person this season.

When the Predators parted ways with Weber – a six-year captain – and other veterans like Eric Nystrom, Barret Jackman, Paul Gaustad and Carter Hutton last summer, it was clear the team would need new leaders to step into the void.

Ellis became a more vocal presence this year, but it was more his steady demeanor and his impeccable work ethic that impressed those around him. The Predators recognized those traits three months ago, when they named him an alternate captain and added him to the team’s leadership group.

“I think as players get more experience and more comfortable inside of a room and start to know their place, you start to see that leadership come out in some people,” Laviolette explains.

“I think he’s an example of that ... I think through the day-to-day process of him working at his game and becoming a pro in the locker room and on the ice in the way he plays the game, I think you start to develop other things as well, like leadership.”

The Preds can only hope Ellis’ growth continues to mirror the growth of that beard, which is now recognized as one of the league’s best.

“If I shave, I look like I’m 15 again, so I’m trying to add some years to the belt,” Ellis said earlier this season. “I just like it, I guess. It’s different. It’s orange. It sticks out a little bit. It’s just something I’m comfortable having.”

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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