It’s the most curious time of the season for National Hockey League teams.
The weather dictates your Nashville Predators play a type of hockey that can be described as desperate, as the men are separated from the boys, as team’s fates are said to becoming crystal clear among the haves and the have-nots.
While there are still plenty of games to be played, as the majority of the league amble towards the coveted quest for hockey’s 2017 Stanley Cup, the realization is that just one of the league’s thirty teams gets to hoist this Holy Grail, and the other remaining eleven, which began as twenty-nine, sit carefully, examining the weather, and whether or not they truly have the goods to compete in the next season’s rigors, which will begin in just a few short months (October, 2018.)
Nashville currently clings to the final guaranteed slot in the Central Division, three points ahead of a St. Louis team that fired their long time head-coach Ken Hitchcock earlier in the week, and four points behind both the Dallas Stars, and the Winnipeg Jets. Only the fumbling Colorado Avalanche is assured of their fate as we streak into February in the NHL.
Over in the Pacific Division, San Jose, Edmonton and Anaheim SEEM assured the top three spots, and this year, in a change of the balance of wild-card power, the Los Angeles Kings, and Calgary Flames cling to the hope that perhaps one of those teams can be the upsetters who might spoil the chances of one of the top contenders in their quest to lift that cup in victory some time in early June.
The Predators, despite losing in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, boast a lofty 7-2-1 record in their previous ten contests, and have moved into the rarified air spot that guarantees them a post-season berth (along with both Minnesota and Chicago,) if the season were to end on this date.
Payback was the theme for the Penguins, as Nashville began their brief two game series with a huge win back in October, which for many will be remembered as “the food poisoning game,” featuring a number of Milwaukee Admirals, recalled from the team’s top minor league affiliate for this singular contest as many Preds regulars were too ill to go, having ingested some tainted soup earlier while returning from a road trip in Detroit.
Finding themselves on the wrong end of a 4-2 score, thanks in part to former Predator’s Patrik Hornqvist’s two goals, the team flew back to Nashville, and prepared for tonight’s contest against the high flying, surprising Oilers, who boast a record of 28-16-8, good for 64 points in the Pacific. Paced by 20-year old superstar center Connor McDavid, who has 59 points in the team’s 52 games, Edmonton is both the eighth best offensive team in the league, as well as the eighth best defensive team. Nashville, sits behind them in both categories, currently at thirteenth in offense, and eleventh in defense.
Things might get a bit easier on Saturday, when former rivals the Detroit Red Wings come to town. I say former rivals because (a) Detroit is now firmly a member of the Eastern Conference, and therefore only play the Predators twice within any given NHL season, and (b) The Red Wings are on pace to miss the playoffs for the first time in twenty-six seasons. Despite boasting four Stanley Cups in the previous twenty-five years,
This Detroit team sits near the bottom of the league in all offensive and defensive categories, and should be classified as one of the “weaker sisters,” that would most probably not withstand a strong Preds home performance.
As for Nashville, they have benefitted from the return of defenseman P.K. Subban from the injury list, and should get another boost as fellow rear-guard Roman Josi is scheduled to return to action, perhaps as early as tonight against the Oilers.
Forwards James Neal, Colin Wilson and Craig Smith are all being counted upon to continue to provide scoring, as each have made contributions in what has been an up and down campaign for the three wingers. Up front, only Finnish forward Miikka Salomaki remains on the injured list, though he too has begun skating and may see a return to the ice later this month.
Continuing his hot hand, Filip Forsberg has electrified the crowd, scoring seven of his now fifteen goals in the month of January. He continues to skate on a line with forward Viktor Arvidsson, and center Ryan Johansen. Johansen, continues to pace the Predators in scoring.
Flip a coin as to which of the two netminders Coach Laviolette will call upon to face Edmonton, with Pekka Rinne taking the loss in Pittsburgh. Juuse Saros last appearance in Nashville was the 5-4 OT loss vs. Buffalo, but the coach may want to get him back between the pipes more sooner than later.
While Rinne is still clearly the number one guy in the Preds crease, Saros has certainly pleased the organization with his steady play, and ability to exude confidence when called upon.
The three game homestand will conclude on Tuesday, Feb 7 as the team faces off against the Vancouver Canucks. All three games are at 7pm, and with each one being so important in the team’s post-season bid, we invite you to come down and be a part of the excitement!
Fasten your seat belts as the team takes you on an exciting ride through the remainder of the regular season. Go Preds!