Losers of four of their last five games, the Nashville Predators hope a trip to the sunny state of Florida is the elixir needed for a couple of winning performances over the next 48 hours.
The eagerly anticipated matchup of defensemen, Shea Weber for Montreal and P.K. Subban in Nashville, never got a chance to happen, and may have to wait until a March meeting in Montreal.
With Subban sidelined due to an undisclosed upper body injury, the stage was set for former Preds captain Weber to make his presence felt in his emotional return to Smashville. A late second period goal by Preds rookie forward Kevin Fiala game the home team a 1-0 lead, but in the third, Weber did score to tie the game at one, and send it into overtime. During the five-minute frame, it was another former Nashville skater, forward Alex Radulov assisting on both Montreal goals, including the overtime winner by Max Pacioretty.
Tonight (Thursday), the Preds will land in Tampa Bay for a matchup against the Lightning. Things have been difficult for both of these teams of late. Tampa, missing superstar Steven Stamkos, is currently fourth in the Atlantic Division, and are sitting outside a wildcard playoff spot by three points, behind the Philadelphia Flyers. Nashville, with 39 points, have dropped to sixth place in the Central Division, and would have to leapfrog a minimum of three teams just to find themselves in contention for the two wildcard spots currently held by Calgary (44 pts.) and Los Angeles (42).
Obviously the races are still tight and in question, but on each night, while these teams battle for position, the inevitability is that while one team loses, another wins, and frequently, with games going into overtime, the dreaded third point is given to the loser of these contests not decided in regulation. Jumping one or two teams while on a hot streak is easier than looking at five or six teams between you and the coveted final playoff spots.
On Friday, the Florida Panthers host Nashville. Florida underwent a coaching change earlier in the season, but they still haven’t righted the ship, and find themselves a couple points behind the Lightning, and looking at a potential big step backwards, as last season they made a terrific statement in the regular season, finishing first in the Atlantic with 103 points.
Two players to watch for up front for the Panthers include 21 year-old Alexsander Barkov, in his fourth NHL season, and 44 year-old Jaromir Jagr, remarkably, in his 23rd NHL season (throw in three more full seasons abroad.) Barkov currently leads the team in scoring and has seen his production rise in each of his first three NHL campaigns. Jagr, just a couple of points behind Barkov, appears to be in peak physical condition and often flashes his abilities on the team’s power play.
The third road game will be a Sunday night affair with the Blackhawks, in Chicago. Last meeting between the two teams was at Bridgestone Arena, and resulted in a 3-2 loss on December 29th. Chicago currently leads the Central with a 23-12-5 record, and should be ready to show their home crowd how easily they can manhandle weaker oppoinents. The Predators, of course, feel otherwise and will do their best to recreate their opening night victory against Chicago back in early October.
The team returns home next Tuesday for a match against the Vancouver Canucks. As previously stated, Vancouver is among the list of “have not” teams that have not mastered the art of consistent winning, and will do all they can to continue to prey upon the Preds misfortunes at home. After a tremendous home start, Nashville has now six consecutive home games (although only three were “regulation losses,” and the rest lost in overtime or shootout.)
What’s gone wrong for Nashville to this point? The injury to All Star rearguard P.K. Subban has created a big void on defense. Despite contributions from depth guys like Matt Irwin and Petter Granberg, opposition’s shots against are up, which means more work for Finnish netminders Pekka Rinne, and rookie Juuse Saros. While Saros has been incredible in his brief body of work this season, the broad shoulders of Rinne have taken a bit of a hit. The NHL Player of the Month in November has seen his goals against average balloon by over half a goal, and while he has been consistently good, the team’s faltering has him in the unenviable position of having to be superhuman on a night-in/night-out basis.
Up front the team continues to run into either hot goaltenders, or their own way. Young veteran Craig Smith has put up only one goal in his past 27 games, and Colin Wilson has lit the lamp just twice in the past month. Additionaly, defenseman Roman Josi has slumped offensively with just fifteen points to date.
Line changes, minor personnel tweaks and better special teams play all seem to be part of the recipe that might get our team moving in the right direction.
Stick around as the January schedule is heavily laden towards the away games, and when the team is fighting for their post-season lives as the Predators are, each game is a must watch, must listen affair. You may not want to miss a moment.