It took ten days to visit five cities, win four games and accumulate eight points, and suddenly the Nashville Predators, on the outside looking in for much of the first half of the season, had been re-born and found themselves overtaking the St. Louis Blues and nesting in third place in the NHL’s Central Division.
Few pundits could have predicted that the team so many felt were ready to compete for a long, deep run into the Stanley Cup playoffs would have faltered as they had through the first 40 or so games of this campaign. Injuries derailed the team’s efforts to stay on track for portions of the schedule, but an overall inconsistency was the chief highlight in the disappointment for the Predators.
Then, in the second week of January, something odd happened. The Predators played back-to-back games at Bridgestone Arena vs. Vancouver and Boston and won despite being outplayed by their opponents in each of the two contests. Happy to grab the four points, the team packed their bags and journeyed west for games against Colorado, a three game stretch in Western Canada and a final game in Minnesota.
Well documented were the team’s efforts to arrive in Colorado despite aircraft malfunctions, and their arrival in Minneapolis without their luggage. Through adversity the team came back for a nice win against Colorado, dropped a 1-0 decision in Vancouver, but then blazed through Calgary, Edmonton and Minnesota with wins that brought them back to Nashville having gone 6-1 in their previous seven contests.
Tuesday night the team faced off against the Buffalo Sabres, who by most accounts can be considered one of the league’s weaker teams, despite showcasing prized sophomore Jack Eichel and a supporting cast that has been playing well enough to compete in recent days, and found themselves just a eight or so points out of the post-season picture in the East.
A Tuesday night crowd against a non-conference opponent meant a few empty seats at Bridgestone, but the fan’s enthusiasm was both tangible and optimal when Filip Forsberg fired in a shorthanded goal late in the first period. Forsberg, off to a terrible start to the season, has been on fire of late, netting seven goals in the month of January, and six in his last seven games. The teams traded goals in the second period with newly acquired tough guy Cody McLeod netting his second goal as a Predator, sandwiched in between two Buffalo goals, including an Eichel tally with just eighteen seconds remaining in the period.
As Viktor Arvidsson and James Neal both tallied in the third period, the Preds had a two goal lead midway through the final stanza, but Brian Gionta and Kyle Okposo tied things up for the Sabres, with Okposo’s goal coming with just a little over a minute left to play. The game was decided in overtime by Eichel, snapping his second of the game and twelfth of the season behind rookie netminder Juuse Saros for a 5-4 win for the visitors.
Letting the second point slip away (NHL teams receive a single point for all overtime and shootout losses) was a huge disappointment for a team that had been on such a great roll since the start of the new calendar year. Coupled with the team’s loss, St. Louis, led by former Predators backup goaltender Carter Hutton, shut out the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins, IN PITTSBURGH!, and the Blues inched closer to that third spot in the Central.
Tonight, the Predators host the Columbus Blue Jackets in the final game before this weekend’s All Star festivities in Los Angeles. It was a year ago that Nashville was center stage, hosting this event as the NHL’s brightest lights shone on Bridgestone Arena and its surrounding establishments. The Preds will be represented by defenseman P.K. Subban in Los Angeles. Columbus will have defensive representation in the All Star Game as well, as former Predator, Seth Jones with represent the Jackets. Jones, having visited Nashville in March of last season following the trade, is the team’s top defender, paired with rookie sensation Zach Werenski.
At just 22 and 19 years-of-age, respectively, the two are certainly the youngest of the NHL’s top defensive pairings, but as the Jackets are currently the fourth best defensive team in the league, there’s no shortage of skill when the two are on the ice. Throw in the fact that Columbus boasts the number three offense and the number one power play throughout the NHL, and it appears Nashville will have its hands full tonight.
Spotlight on Ryan Johansen, acquired for Jones in the huge January, 2016 deal. Currently leading the Predators in scoring, Johansen’s linemates Forsberg and Arvidsson have been recipients of the center’s deft passing, and although the goal numbers are not where the Preds and their fans had hoped they’d be, he’s contributing on the faceoff, and penalty kill in addition to his team leading assist total.
Expect Pekka Rinne in nets tonight for Nashville, and expect a loud and anxious crowd, hoping to put the disastrous final minutes of the Sabres game behind them. The Preds will move on to Pittsburgh for an encounter vs. the Penguins next Tuesday, and then be back at Bridgestone for three games to begin February vs. Edmonton, Detroit and Vancouver.