Thirty-four games have been played by the Nashville Predators in the 2016-17 National Hockey League season. Just two more for 2016, and at this point, there are more questions than answers for this sixth-place Central Division team.
Tonight (Thursday) the team faces off against rival Chicago in what fans, players, coaches and management have to deem as a must-win contest. After all, the Predators have played twelve games in the month of December: a win, two losses, a win, two losses, a win, two losses, and, yes, a win, and two losses.
The good news? The team is coming off two losses, so a win appears to be in the cards.
The bad news? The Blackhawks are 22-10-5 and lead the Central Division, with a thirteen-point advantage over Nashville.
What has been going on that can be traced to the cause of the Preds lack of consistency? Well, just about everything. After winning NHL Player of the Month honors in November, Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne was nothing more that adequate in December, and has yielded the crease to Finnish rookie Juuse Saros twice in the last five games. Saros backstopped the team’s last win, on December 20th in New Jersey, and may see action in one of the back-to-back contests the team is playing tonight and Friday (on the road vs. St. Louis.)
The defense has taken a hit recently with All Star P.K. Subban having missed the last five games with an upper-body injury. Subban is not expected to play either of the next two games, and remains questionable for the January 3rd tilt vs. his former teammates, the Montreal Canadiens at Bridgestone Arena. While the team has released no official statement, rumor suggests a reasonably serious injury that could put the essential rearguard out for a considerably longer period of time. We can only hope this is just rumor and innuendo, as the team could ill afford to lose a talent like Subban for a great period of time.
Up front, the Predators forwards have been wildly inconsistent from the start of the season. Players counted on for strong seasons, such as center Ryan Johansen, and forwards Filip Forsberg, James Neal, Craig Smith and Colin Wilson have underperformed for large stretches of the campaign, and are performing at paces that suggest less strong numbers than projected at the outset of the year.
On the plus side, sophomore winger Viktor Arvidsson and rookie Kevin Fiala are exhibiting massive amounts of skill and determination with varied results on the score sheet. Arvidsson has battled for the team lead in scoring throughout December, and Fiala has recently finished each game with a handful of great chances that he has yet to convert on a consistent basis.
Additionally, the team put a waiver claim on New Jersey Devils forward Reid Boucher, a 23-year old with solid minor and junior scoring credentials, and after a brief conditioning assignment in Milwaukee, with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate (in which he scored four goals in five games,) he delivered a breathtaking goal in his return to the Preds during a 2-3 overtime loss to Minnesota on Tuesday.
As stated, Chicago is part of the cream of the Central Division crop, essentially sharing the title with Minnesota’s Wild, who have an eleven game winning streak, and are just a single point behind the Hawks, with three games in hand. The Wild, and goaltender Devan Dubnyk specifically, are the stingiest team in the league, with Dubnyk leading the NHL with a Goals-Against-Average of just 1.58. Minnesota adds to their arsenal with the fourth best offense and fourth best penalty-killing unit. They have beaten Nashville in both of their games played at Bridgestone this season. The first matchup between the Preds and Wild in Minnesota is set for January 22nd.
On Friday night, the Preds conclude the 2016 portion of the season with a road game in St. Louis vs. the Blues. In their last meeting, at Bridgestone, the Preds allowed the Blues a 3-0 lead before dramatically staging an uproarious comeback with six consecutive goals and a subsequent 6-3 win in front of a raucous crowd that thought the team was well on their way to delivering a string of victories that haven’t come as hoped for.
The initial 2017 game closes out our weekly schedule with a Tuesday night home game against Montreal. The Canadiens will come in with a familiar figure on the blueline, as the fans will get their first live look at former Captain Shea Weber in the red, white and blue jersey of Les Habitants. Expect a warm welcome and an emotional tribute to the man who was considered the backbone of the franchise for the better part of eleven seasons.
Starting hot, Weber lit the lamp eight times in the team’s first twenty games, but hit a fourteen game goalless skid before grabbing his ninth in the team’s most recent game. This should be circled on your calendar as a must-see game for a few critical reasons. Subban or not, each game is so important to the Preds, who have much ground to gain to climb back into the post-season race. Weber will obviously look to make a statement vs. his former team, and Rinne (or Saros) will have his hands full fending off those 108 MPH blasts off the stick of the 31-year old rearguard.
To our loyal and casual readers, we wish you a Happy New Year. Here’s to a safe, sound and joyous holiday, and we’ll be back with you next week with what we hope can be called “the happy recap.”