This past week, the Nashville Predators won two crucial home games vs. playoff bound teams (the New York Islanders and LA Kings) but sandwiched in between, dropped a road affair in Washington vs. the NHL’s leading team, the Capitals.
The 4-2 win on Thursday night was highlighted by a strong performance from first line center, Ryan Johansen. Having lit the lamp just once since February 4th vs. Philadelphia, Johansen had a mere seven points in his previous 18 games, and although not a liability on the ice, was certainly in the “underachiever” column after a strong start to his tenure in Nashville. He and linemates James Neal and Calle Jarnkrok combined for three of the four goals vs. the Islanders.
The team traveled up to the nation’s capital for a Friday night game against Barry Trotz’ Capitals. After a scoreless first period, Filip Forsberg got the scoring started for Nashville with a power play goal, his 29th tally of the season.
Unfortunately for the Preds, goals by Daniel Winnik, T.J. Oshie and then Winnik again gave the Caps a 3-1 lead. A third period goal by Andre Burakovsky added insurance, and like so many teams have done this year, the Preds came home after a date with the league’s elite, and had nothing to show for it in the points column.
The Monday night game with Los Angeles had far reaching implications. These are two teams that appear to be on a collision course towards a first round matchup in the post-season.
With Los Angeles the top seed in the Pacific Division, and trailing Central Division leading Dallas by just two points, a win for LA would have moved them into first place overall in the west, and given them the seemingly-much easier second wildcard spot as their first round opponent. While no one wants to face Los Angeles to start the post season, the Kings now have to be thinking that Nashville may be no walk in the park either.
As happened in Washington, the Preds and their opponents played to a scoreless first period. In this contest, each team got a chance to show off their All-Star goaltending, with Pekka Rinne in nets for Nashville, and Jonathan Quick between the pipes for LA.
It was an exciting, fast paced opening frame, with Nashville’s Colin Wilson hitting the crossbar on an excellent effort, and speedy rookie Viktor Arvidsson showing a tremendous burst of speed and just firing the puck inches wide of the net. In the second period, that first line clicked again as James Neal netted his 28th of the season, followed by a Mike Fisher power-play goal (Neal and Johansen getting the assists) and then Filip Forsberg notching his 30th of the campaign.
A couple of notes on those last two goals; Fisher had been honored at the start of the game for his performance in 1,000 NHL games. Among those on hand for the celebration were his mother and father, as well as wife, singer Carrie Underwood, and their son, Isaiah (just 13 months old). As for Forsberg, he becomes the team’s first 30-goal scorer since Patrick Hornqvist hit the mark in the 2009-10 campaign.
While the Kings applied pressure and cut the lead to 3-2 in the third period, again Johansen proved timely and netted his 13th of the season (7th with the Predators), capping a three-point night. Roman Josi added an empty netter, and the Preds topped LA, 5-2. The Kings would go on to Minnesota last night and drop a 3-2 decision, coupled with a Dallas win, and are now four points off the pace set by the Stars.
So, if the standings hold as is for both Nashville and Los Angeles, we’d see the Kings in round one, and while that sounds like an easy victory for the Kings, the Preds certainly cast the shadow of doubt in a lot of minds with their strong performance at Bridgestone Arena on Monday.
Next up? Vancouver, losers of five consecutive games, and playing without a number of regulars due to season ending injuries will be at Bridgestone on Thursday. While we often talk about parity, and about how “on any given night, any team can beat another in the National Hockey League,” this is a Preds team playing excellent hockey right now, and the determination to go into the post-season firing on all cylinders in apparent with virtually every shift. Nothing is left on the table for Nashville.
This Saturday is the lone appearance for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who now feature former Preds defenseman Seth Jones, acquired in the Johansen deal in January. The Jackets are last in the Metropolitan Division, but have shown improvement under John Tortorella, who was hired after the team got off to a horrendous start.
Colorado comes in on Monday, and they are battling with the Minnesota Wild for the final playoff spot in the West. Currently on the outside looking in, the Avs are at 80 points, to Minnesota’s 81 and both teams have now won their last 3 games, so expect Patrick Roy’s team to give the Preds all they can handle in that contest.
The final game of the week for them brings them to Dallas on Tuesday, and then I will recap those games and we’ll head into the final ten days of the regular season. Eric Nystrom returned from a broken foot, and replaced Austin Watson in the lineup. Gabby Bourque and Paul Gaustad remain on the injured list.
Stick with us, as we ride into the post-season with a very hot Predators team!