While the season may not be entirely slipping away from the Nashville Predators, there is a decided difference from the way this campaign started and the previous dozen or so games that have pointed the team towards the lower half of the division and conference standings.
The ultra-competitive National Hockey League is so richly steeped in parity that, as I say to at least one person on a daily basis, on any given night a team who you thought would roll over and die for you, will pick up two all important points from a team that naturally expected the win without the benefit of actually playing the game.
The Preds hit the road late last week for a trio of games against three “Original Six” teams. Detroit, Boston and Chicago all hosted a Nashville team that has confounded fans and pundits alike with almost every win or loss this year. On some nights the team wins even though the opponent has carried the play, and then other nights the team loses despite domination in virtually every key category, save for the scoreboard.
We’ve outlined some things that have been going wrong in previous installments, but this three game series set in motion trains of thought that solidified fan feelings beyond a shadow of a doubt. First, the injury to Mike Fisher (and a side of the injury to Gabriel Bourque) brought about opportunity for more of the young, newly installed Predators to showcase their abilities to stand up and face the rigors of tougher NHL competition.
To this effort, they’ve done surprisingly well. Calle Jarnkrok, Viktor Arvidsson, and to varying degrees of lesser success, Colton Sissons, Miikka Salomaki and Austin Watson have all been among the top performers on a nightly basis. That would be a very good thing if they were supporting consistent efforts from high paid veterans like Mike Ribeiro, James Neal, Craig Smith, Colin Wilson and sophomore sensation Filip Forsberg.
But, the fact is that the upper echelon of Predator forwards have stunk in multiple ways throughout the course of this “slump,” and honestly, for very large chunks of this 2015-16 campaign.
High marks offensively for defensemen Shea Weber (voted NHL’s second star of the week this past week, with his first hat trick and three assists) and partner Roman Josi, who contributed two power play goals in the win at Boston’s TD Garden.
In goal, who would have thought that back-up Carter Hutton would have supplied the only win on the trip, with the 3-2 victory in Boston? All-Star netminder Pekka Rinne dropped a 5-4 overtime decision in Detroit. He then lost the 4-1 contest in Chicago, with the last of the Hawk goals finding an empty net after Rinne was pulled for the extra attacker – also allowing NHL scoring leader Patrick Kane to continue his 23 game scoring streak.
High praise has to go to the diminutive Arvidsson, who started the season with Nashville and was then shipped back to Milwaukee to gain more playing time and work on strength. Recalled when injuries to forwards began to mount, Arvidsson scored in both Detroit and Boston, and was robbed in Chicago on a couple of great saves by Hawks goaltender Corey Crawford. He also ripped one off the post on a blistering shot that would have brought Nashville to within one goal with time remaining in the third period.
The team now sports a record of 14-9-5, which means they have lost 14 of 28 games to date, and that is just average by any definition. Just average teams might slide into the lower regions of the playoff rankings but are generally swept out of contention within the first round, something the Preds did last year in an unfortunate loss to the Blackhawks.
Thursday night Chicago comes to Bridgestone and effort needs to be of the highest order. The last time the team was at home it laid an egg, dropping a 2-1 decision to the Florida Panthers last Thursday.
Colorado comes to town on Saturday then Calgary arrives on Tuesday, before the Preds play a single road game in St. Louis. They then have five more home games through the 28th of this month.
Eight of nine at home, and hopefully a return of Fisher, should mean prosperity for this group. Rinne has not been as sharp as we’ve seen him, but defensively the team has lost a little of its mojo as they’ve pressed the issue in the offensive zone in their efforts to deliver goals that have not been coming easily.
If you have a chance to come down and see the team play live, you’ll also catch a glimpse of the outdoor rink that has been constructed across the street from the arena. Come early and lace ‘em up yourself. You won’t face a stiff check from an opponent, and you won’t light the lamp against the hated rivals, but you’ll feel the brisk air and enjoy the excitement of gliding down the ice with family and friends.
Until next week, Let’s Go Preds!