With All-Star weekend coming up in just a handful of days, the entire National Hockey League converges on Smashville for a series of events that should solidify everyone’s opinion that Nashville has become a solid hockey destination within the league.
Recently the Los Angeles Kings media department posed a question to members of their hockey team, asking them what their favorite road city was. Both forward Kyle Clifford and defenseman Alec Martinez answered without hesitation that Music City was as fine a place as there was to visit, citing music, barbecue, and overall atmosphere as positives.
Of course, playing a tough Nashville Predators team might make the answer a little difficult for some opposing players.
Recently, however, the Predators have not been tough enough to play against and the fans have been forced to hold their collective breath, waiting to see how the team might right the ship.
With that being said, having lost eight of their previous ten games overall, the Predators grabbed passports and headed north for a four game trip that would bring us up to the All Star hiatus.
As of this writing, the Predators managed the seemingly unthinkable, reeling off road victories in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver, allowing a total of just three goals in these games.
Pekka Rinne, a recent victim of some poor defensive play in front of him, as well as some un-Pekka like goaltending, has been outstanding in these recent contests. That has allowed the Preds to continue to keep their heads above water, trying to stay within a couple of points of that final wildcard playoff spot.
The final game of the four game trip will be played Wednesday night in Calgary, where the Flames are coming off five road games themselves, having only netted one victory and now well out of contention for a post-season berth.
What’s gone right for the Predators in the past few games? The defense has tightened up, the goaltending has been back to its usual reliable self, and the Preds have gotten timely goals to break close games open.
In Winnipeg, the Preds gave up an early goal before tying the game on a Ryan Johansen goal towards the end of the first period. Nashville then took the lead in the second on a Craig Smith tally, and clinging to that 2-1 margin found goals in the last two minutes from James Neal and Calle Jarnkrok to complete the victory 4-1.
In Edmonton, again the Oilers struck first but Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm struck back within minutes before the first period came to a close. Ekholm once again found a second period tally, and unlike the previous game, Mike Fisher struck early in the third, and Filip Forsberg added an empty net marker for another 4-1 win.
The Vancouver game had a slightly different script, with Smith scoring within the first minute of the game for the Preds, only to see the Canucks tie it mid-first. The second period and most of the third were without many Nashville chances, but a goal by Neal with less than five minutes to go served as the clincher in a 2-1 win.
With Colorado being pasted by San Jose last night, the Avs hold just a single point lead over Nashville for the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference. Nashville does have two games in hand against Colorado, so the Preds are in control of their destiny at this point. Minnesota, also slumping, are owners of the first of the two wildcard spots, and they share the same number of points as the Avs, but like the Preds, have two games in hand as well.
Over in the Pacific Division, Los Angeles, San Jose and Arizona have the three guaranteed spots at present. Anaheim is vying for a wildcard berth, but is currently three points behind the Preds, although the Ducks have two games in hand on Nashville.
Needless to say, things are up for grabs and tonight’s game vs. the Flames looms large heading into the break.
No major changes to the Preds roster over the past week, but defenseman Tony Bitetto has been pushed back into the press box as Swedish rearguard Petter Granberg has slotted in the past three games with favorable results.
Austin Watson returned to the lineup in place of highly touted 19-year-old Kevin Fiala, who may find himself back in the American League as the team returns home. Colin Wilson and Gabriel Bourque are both about ready to return from the injured list, and both Fiala and forward Cody Bass should find their way back to the Milwaukee when they are ready to go.
After All Star weekend, the Preds return to action on February 2nd with a huge home game against division rivals, the St. Louis Blues.
Our next correspondence will recap all the All Star festivities, as well as the big game against the Blues.