With back-to-back home wins prior to the mandatory NHL Holiday break the Nashville Predators gave themselves, and their fans, some much-needed relief after stumbling through another road loss in St. Louis the previous Thursday night.
Having taken a 1-0 lead into the third period at the Scottrade Center, the Preds saw their lead vanish with the Blues netting an even strength goal early and then a power play goal with just over five minutes to play in regulation. With that 2-1 defeat Nashville marched home having lost three consecutive contests for the second time this season.
Their record over the last fifteen games stood at a dismal 4-8-3 which was good for just 11 of a possible 30 points. Fortunately, with Colorado and Winnipeg still struggling to get back into the playoff picture, the team continued to cling to a wild card berth in the ultra-competitive Central Division.
The home games vs. both Minnesota and Montreal seemed crucial to the team’s righting of the ship as they began to sail into the end of 2015, and the local spotlight on the All-Star break coming in just a month’s time.
The Wild game was a step forward, as Filip Forsberg scored within the first minute of the opening frame, and Mike Ribeiro netted a power play goal before the period ended. James Neal added a goal midway through the second period. Minnesota cut the lead to 3-1 less than a minute later and would get another goal in the third period, but the Predators stingy defense, coupled with clutch goaltending from Pekka Rinne gave the home team a much needed victory.
The Montreal game saw a “shoe on the other foot” scenario for Nashville, as many times this season the team has lost games despite outshooting their opponent and maintaining a territorial advantage that gave Coach Laviolette the chance to say that he was happy with his team’s play, just not the outcome on the scoreboard.
With the Canadiens firing anything and everything at the net, Rinne made save after save in economical fashion. At the other end of the ice, the Preds took advantage of Montreal’s back-up goaltending, with Vezina Trophy winner Carey Price sidelined, and blasted the Habs, 5-1.
Nashville built a 4-0 lead on goals by defensemen Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and forward Calle Jarnkrok before Montreal could finally put one past Rinne (on the power play). Colin Wilson, recently back from an injury which caused him to miss four games added an empty net goal, and sent the team home to their families for a brief, but welcomed four day break.
Concerns include the team’s penalty killing, currently ranked 29th of the 30 NHL teams. Injuries to forwards Mike Fisher and Gabriel Bourque may factor in a bit, but the guys who have been out there on the PK for much of the season (Eric Nystrom, Paul Gaustad, Jarnkrok and Colton Sissons) have, at times, proved to be capable but too often lately the puck is finding its way in the net when shorthanded.
Conversely, the power play has been fueled by the defense with Weber and Josi now combining for 19 goals on the season, with 13 of those coming with the man advantage. In fact, overall the team is led in scoring by Josi (9 goals, 17 assists) and Weber (10 goals, 15 assists) with forwards Neal and Forsberg tied for third with 22 points.
This, though magnificent for the blueliners, is also an area of concern for the team as forward production has been sparse throughout the season, both when winning and losing. While Neal leads the team with a respectable 13 goals, no other Predators forward has hit double digits, and in fact, Forsberg and Craig Smith are tied for second among the forwards with just seven.
Rumblings are that the team’s GM, David Poile is considering deals that would bring in some help up front, but of course, most NHL teams General Managers will circle like vultures hoping to deplete the Preds of some of their defensive riches.
Weber and Josi are obviously untouchable at this point in time. Ellis and his partner, Mattias Ekholm, have both been signed to long term deals at an affordable price which could put them in the line of fire, if Poile hastens to part with big 21 year old Seth Jones. Jones, in his third season, has really taken strides towards fulfilling the promise of his high draft selection (fourth overall, 2013) and would be a “fit” on ANY NHL team’s roster for years to come.
Big names being floated around include Columbus’ Ryan Johansen and Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Both would be solid additions to the Preds forward corps, but make no mistake, the price would be steep, and multiple suitors will be inquiring. Poile has made acquisitions in the past (Forsberg was stolen from Washington three years ago, and Jarnkrok was a solid addition, arriving from the Red Wings the following year) with only last year’s deadline deal, in which they re-acquired former Preds Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson, failing to achieve the primary objective and move the club forward throughout the post-season.
This Saturday, the opponents are the Detroit Red Wings, who, when they were a Western Conference rival always seemed to bring out a sea of red to Bridgestone Arena. Now that they reside in the East, I expect to see a bit less of the local band-wagoners, but with Christmas temperatures scheduled for the 70’s, who wouldn’t want to escape Michigan and enjoy Smashville for the weekend?
Monday will bring in the New York Rangers, currently slumping, and then on Tuesday it’s back to St. Louis for a chance at redemption against the Blues.
Happy and safe holidays to all of our readers! Thanks for supporting the Predators!