A six-game Nashville Predators losing streak mercifully ended with a 2-1 overtime win against the lowly Arizona Coyotes Monday night, but after the final horn sounded there was not much time for celebration, or even a collective sigh of relief, as the team was about to face even bigger challenges with three upcoming games scheduled in California. In surveying the damage control done at the fan level, on social media it felt as if bodies were splattered and splayed everywhere, and tensions mounted as armchair coaches and general managers dissected the Predators play and began to wonder if the Cinderella story the team had woven over the first two thirds of the season was about to unravel right before their eyes.
While there were no overly dramatic calls for Coach Laviolette’s head, there was plenty of finger pointing as to who was the cause of this sudden slide. To the team’s credit, it never felt like the coaching staff or the players pushed a panic button, and the underside of the team bus remained body free, as sensible minds were quick to assure anyone who would listen that things do tend to even out over the course of a hockey season, for ALL teams. Most of the six games the team dropped, were competitive games that were decided by a goal (and an empty net goal here and there for effect.) Running into the odd “hot goaltender” or giving up the unexpected deflection became the difference between “hands up” or heads down. Fortunately, the team left Nashville and delivered two points in Arizona, and can now move further west for three crucial games for all concerned.
Let’s face it. While the Preds are clearly “in” the post season conversation, there’s an awful lot of uncertainty everywhere they look. Thursday night, the team will face off against the San Jose Sharks (9:30pm CDT,) who are on the outside looking in, and desperate for two points. San Jose suffered through a dismal February, winning only three of their thirteen games, but have won three of four in March, and hope to have righted the ship enough to climb back into the post season race… but at whose expense?
The Western Conference features two divisions, The Central, where the Preds reside, and the Pacific, where the Sharks, Kings and Ducks are situated. Coming into Wednesday’s action, the teams currently qualified for post season play are the Predators, Blues, Blackhawks, Ducks, Canucks and Flames, with the Wild and Jets holding down the “wild card” positions.
As I pointed out, the Sharks are a desperate team, but what about the Los Angeles Kings? … the Kings… as in Stanley Cup winning Kings, who are actually tied in points with the Flames for that guaranteed spot in the Pacific, but with two less regulation wins, fall a point shy of even a wild card spot, with both of those entries coming from the ultra competitive Central Division. Not many people are picking the Kings to be golfing when the playoffs begin, and after reeling off eight wins in a row, the champs proceeded to lose three, before rebounding to win three of their last four, with their only loss a 1-0 overtime defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jonathan Quick has been exceptional as of late, and Saturday’s tilt (9:00pm CDT) should be a goaltending clinic at both ends of the ice.
Less than 24 hours later, down the 5 Freeway about 35 miles, the Anaheim Ducks will host the Preds in a Sunday game (7:00pm CDT) that has implications as far as the President’s Trophy (awarded to the team with the most regular season points) and Western Conference home ice goes. Currently the Predators and Ducks each have 91 points in 68 games, so each team is bent on picking up crucial points to assure themselves home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. The Ducks did some tinkering with their team at the deadline, and after a four game win streak, have come out on the short end of the stick in their last two games.
As for the Predators themselves, James Neal delivered the game winner in Arizona. After some frantic work in front of Coyotes netminder Louis Domingue seemed to frustrate the team, defenseman Cody Franson took charge and sent the puck out to his partner Seth Jones whose shot was stopped, but Neal was there to fire in the rebound, and make sure there’d be no more doubt about the Preds getting two points on this night. Pekka Rinne made 27 saves to be named the game’s third star of the evening, breaking a personal five game losing streak. Obviously, the team relies on Rinne to be the best goaltender on the ice every night, and the battle with the rookie Domingue could be deemed a toss-up based on the numerous Predator chances in overtime, with Nashville outshooting Arizona 7-0 in the extra frame, which lasted only two minutes and forty-five seconds.
The team will return home after the three California games to face the Minnesota Wild on St. Patrick’s Day – Tuesday, March 17th at 7:00pm. The Wild have made an improbable run into a wild card position in the West with goaltender Devan Dubnyk leading the charge. Dubnyk, cast off by Edmonton, Nashville, Montreal and Phoenix over the past two seasons, has started a remarkable twenty-five games in a row since his acquisition, posting an equally remarkable 19-4-2 record. When acquired, the Wild were 18-19-5, and dead last in the Central Division, nine points out of a playoff spot. Now, barring collapse, the Wild should hold onto at very least a wild card spot in the post-season.
I will be making the trip this weekend for games in Los Angeles and Anaheim; so don’t forget to follow me on Twitter for in-game updates as they happen. Follow our S&E Nashville Twitter and Facebook feeds as well, and get ready for a very exciting final month of the regular NHL season. Go Predators!