After an almost embarrassingly dominant rout of the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday, the Nashville Predators were set to clinch a playoff spot with their next regulation win, and a home game against Colorado on Monday seemed to be the moment the fans and franchise would be doing their celebrating.
The team had reeled off wins vs. Los Angeles the previous Monday, then, on Thursday, an exciting finish vs. Vancouver, in a game they trailed 2-0 until just about ten minutes to go in regulation when the offense caught fire and turned the game around in Predators favor during the shootout phase of overtime.
As mentioned, on Saturday, the team fired 48 shots at Columbus netminder Joonas Korpisalo, lighting the lamp five times in a 5-1 drubbing of the Jackets.
The Avalanche came to town on Monday with their post-season hopes hanging barely by a thread. Having been shut out by their wild-card combatants, the Minnesota Wild, the Avalanche scored early and often against Pekka Rinne, notching three goals on their first nine shots, sending Rinne to the bench, and landing Carter Hutton in the Nashville net for the remainder of the contest.
A Craig Smith goal (his 20th) off a beautiful pass from Filip Forsberg gave the shellshocked home crowd a glimmer of hope prior to the end of the first period. In the second period, the Preds appeared to cut the lead to 3-2 with Miikka Salomaki putting one past Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov, but Colorado issued the “coaches challenge,” and the Preds were ruled to be offsides entering the offensive zone, and the goal was called back.
There were about five minutes left in the final frame when the Predators electrified the remainder of the crowd that made a hasty retreat to the exits when the Avalanche added a goal by Shawn Matthias with about eight minutes remaining in regulation. Two Predators goals in a span of twenty-four seconds (Colton Sissons and Roman Josi) brought the team to within one goal at 4-3, but the Avs tightened up their defense and did not allow the equalizer for the home team.
Immediately after the game, the Preds wiped the slate clean and traveled to Dallas for a game last night against the Stars. It had been a rough twenty-four hours for Nashville, as the loss to Colorado was coupled with the off-ice news that Harvard forward Jimmy Vesey, drafted by Nashville in 2012 (3rd round, 66th overall) had made the decision NOT to join the Predators, electing for free agency come August 15th.
This decision caused quite the stir from the Predators front office, to the media, and trickling on down to the fan base, most of whom were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the power forward, who had completed his four years of college hockey and looked to be as strong an addition to the Preds lineup as any forward the team might have been able to acquire at the trading deadline a couple weeks earlier.
In Dallas, the team went back to Rinne between the pipes, and played the Stars with Paul Gaustad replacing Eric Nystrom in the lineup. Gaustad had missed most of the month of March, getting hurt in Colorado on March 5th. Nashville started quickly; with defenseman Ryan Ellis getting his ninth goal of the season while Colorado was on the power play early in the first period. Jamie Benn tied the score at one, and it wasn’t until midway through the second period that the tie would be broken. Dallas forwards Radek Faksa and Jason Spezza talled just forty-six seconds apart to give the Stars a two goal lead, but Viktor Arvidsson cut that lead in half with his first NHL power-play goal.
Arvidsson, often praised in this column for his willingness to stick his nose in traffic and find the open areas to receive passes, was rewarded for his hard work, coupled with the team finding themselves short on the second power-play unit having lost Ellis to an undisclosed injury in the first period.
The third period was a source of major frustration for Nashville, as four times the Preds fired the puck past Dallas goaltended Kari Lehtonen, only to hear the clang off metal as the team hit the goalposts and could not find the equalizer despite the many chances.
Dallas added two late empty net goals and within forty eight hours, the Predators had two regulation losses, as well as the loss of one of their top defensemen (Ellis) and the disheartening Vesey decision.
The Preds have one more road game, traveling to Pittsburgh to play Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Patrik Hornqvist and company on Thursday before returning home for a Saturday game against San Jose, as well as Tuesday and Thursday contests against Colorado, and Arizona, finishing the regular season on April 9 in Dallas.
While the team has been unable to punch their ticket to the post-season over the past two games, it is still reasonably certain that the team is going to be in the playoffs, and look likely to face Los Angeles in round one. Next week we will get into details of the team’s chances, as prior to these two defeats, Nashville has been the hottest team in the NHL.