Sports, Thrill of Victory

Mercifully, March ends and hopefully April fuels Predators push to the playoffs

It’s early Wednesday morning, April 1st. I thought I would do an entire blog devoted to April Fools Day, and write about last night’s dismissal of Peter Laviolette as head coach of the Nashville Predators, with former NHL player, coach and long time Preds TV analyst Terry Crisp being brought in to “right the ship.” I’d pepper the article with hints that Crisp was ready to go into the post-season without Captain Shea Weber, who has, in fact, missed the last three games with the dreaded “lower body injury,” and how Carter Hutton would take over regular goaltending duties from Pekka Rinne in a last-ditch effort to keep the team atop the Central Division through the final four games of the regular season. But, the joke would be ill-timed and ill-advised, as once again the team finds themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard in their last two home games, despite grabbing one all-important point against Vancouver last night.

Yes, March had a moment of clarity… but it felt brief, as sandwiched in between their recent four-game win streak, were eleven March games where the team was just 2-7-2, picking up six of a possible twenty-two points, and almost losing their near wire-to-wire stranglehold on the top spot in the Central Division. In short, the team must regroup during the final four games of the regular season. (Playoffs begin on April 15th. Preds seeding, opponent and home dates TBD.)

James Neal has been on the shelf since mid-March, but his 22 goals are third on the team, and he's an important cog in the team's offensive success.

James Neal has been on the shelf since mid-March, but his 22 goals are third on the team, and he’s an important cog in the team’s offensive success. Photo by David McCargar

Starting from the back, let’s look at the goaltending. Pekka Rinne had an unworldly first half of the season. An injury sidelined him briefly, and after missing eight games, he came back and had a brief misstep against NHL power Anaheim, before reeling off five consecutive wins. It was only after the mid-February/March slide that people began to whisper that Pekka “wasn’t right” since the injury, ignoring the five spectacular games he had upon his return. Right now, Rinne has to be better. Last night he allowed four goals in regulation on just 25 Canuck shots, and then missed both of Vancouver’s shootout attempts in a 5-4 loss. While Vancouver’s Eddie Lack gave up an equal number of goals, he was able to stop both Predator solo efforts and helped his team get two points for their tenacious (if not, dirty) efforts. Backup Carter Hutton was given a rare home start on Sunday, and looked both rusty and shaky as the team fell to the Calgary Flames 5-2. Next up, the Preds have a Saturday home game against Dallas, before a brief one game road swing to Colorado for a Tuesday night affair vs. the Avalanche. Look for Rinne in nets as the Preds close out the regular season.

On defense, with Weber out of the lineup, Seth Jones has filled in on the top pairing with Roman Josi, and while the team misses the explosive shot their captain provides, the pair have been acceptable at even strength, with Josi logging over 30 minutes of ice time in last night’s tilt vs. the Canucks. Cody Franson, who at times has felt a bit out of step with his new teammates, chipped in a goal last night, and logged 22 minutes of ice, the most he has had since being re-acquired by the team in mid-February. His presence on the power-play has cut some of Mattias Ekholm’s special teams minutes, but Ekholm had goals in back-to-back games prior to last night, including a highlight reel effort in Washington last Saturday night.

Despite getting a late start on the season, Mike Fisher is just one goal shy of the 20-goal mark, which would give the Preds five snipers in that club. Photo by David McCargar

Despite getting a late start on the season, Mike Fisher is just one goal shy of the 20-goal mark, which would give the Preds five snipers in that club. Photo by David McCargar

The return of Anton Volchenkov over the last three games has added a more physical dimension to the team’s back end. Offensively, Volchenkov has assists in two of the three games he’s played during Weber’s absence, giving him six on the season. Ryan Ellis, having missed virtually all of January and February has shown occasional flashes of his great first half, but has been inconsistent since he’s been moved away from his steady partner Ekholm, and has been paired with Volchenkov, Franson and even Jones in varying situations. All-in-all, the team needs this three day break, in the hopes Weber returns for the final regular season games.

Up front, it’s easy to make excuses for the team’s inconsistent play. Newcomer Viktor Arvidsson has now played six games (no points) and has seen his ice time dwindle to the point where, if an injured forward (read: Matt Cullen, James Neal, Eric Nystrom) were to return prior to Saturday’s contest against Dallas, one would think Arvidsson would be best served finishing out the season with the team’s American League affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, where he continues to lead the team in scoring.

A valuable free-agent acquisition, veteran center Mike Ribiero leads the team in points (60) and has helped make Filip Forsberg a candidate for the Calder Trophy (Best Rookie.) Photo by David McCargar

A valuable free-agent acquisition, veteran center Mike Ribiero leads the team in points (60) and has helped make Filip Forsberg a candidate for the Calder Trophy (Best Rookie.) Photo by David McCargar

The fourth line, made up of Paul Gaustad, centering Taylor Beck and Gabriel Bourque has been, for the most part, effective, with Beck netting three goals in the month of March (offensively, Bourque has been disappointing, netting just three assists, with two of them coming this past Saturday in DC, while Gaustad, the victim of a very dirty, and potentially suspendable hit by Canucks forward Alex Burrows, has been winning faceoffs at a clip of over 56%, placing him within the top 30 in the league.) Mike Santorelli, playing with Viktor Stalberg and Calle Jarnkrok, notched his first goal since being re-acquired from Toronto along with Franson. Stalberg scored last night against Vancouver, and Jarnkrok has also struggled offensively, with his last goal coming in late-February vs. Colorado.

Again, with the three veteran forwards injured, it would stand to reason that a younger player like Jarnkrok may see some time in the press box as the final games prepare the team for the post-season. The top six, (again, without Neal) have shuttled around and played varying roles with varying degrees of success. Mike Fisher has notched 19 goals, and if he logs his 20th in these final four games, would join Filip Forsberg (23), Craig Smith (23), Neal (22) and Colin Wilson (20) in the 20-goal club. Mike Ribiero (15) leads the team with 60 points, and top defensemen Weber and Josi have also each netted 15 goals.

Home stretch time. Two games this week, two games next week and then the deck is re-shuffled and the playoffs begin! We’ll be back next Wednesday and assume the playoff picture will still not be entirely sorted out. I’ll help you unravel it as it unfolds to us all. Follow us on Twitter, and Facebook, and of course, my personal Twitter page as well. I get a little snarky, but it’s good to laugh a little. Go Preds!