With road losses to division rivals Winnipeg, Colorado and Chicago, and conference rivals Phoenix, the Nashville Predators find themselves losers of eighteen of their past twenty-six games, and precariously clinging to the final wildcard spot in the race to the NHL post-season.
Amazingly, when the Preds, off to a great start to the season, were firmly embedded in the playoff picture, there were thoughts that no wildcard team would even come from the Pacific division, which was being maligned as the weak sister division in the West.
Now, with half the season in the books, the waters look murkier than ever. While the Preds do hold onto the eighth and final spot in the West, they are literally tied in points with Colorado. The Avalanche have played one more game than Nashville, and are just a single point ahead of San Jose and Vancouver.
The Sharks actually currently hold the third and final “guaranteed” slot in the Pacific, and Vancouver, by virtue of less regulation wins, sit outside the playoff picture, just a single point out of a wildcard spot.
Throw in teams like Anaheim and Winnipeg, who at Thanksgiving were so far out of the picture, pundits deemed it virtually impossible to get back in the hunt. Now, six weeks later and with half a season to go, both are just four points behind Nashville, with plenty of daylight in the distance.
What happened? As we went to press last week, it was discussed that Preds GM David Poile was actively seeking a big number-one center that could provide scoring punch and be able to stand up to the larger centers around their division and conference.
Acting immediately, Poile struck, and acquired 23-year-old Ryan Johansen from the Columbus Blue Jackets, in exchange for third year defenseman Seth Jones. With the move, Poile took a big step towards making the Nashville forward lines stronger and more consistent throughout. With Johansen anchoring the top line, Centers Mike Ribeiro and Mike Fisher were able to move down into second and third center roles, which should be less pressure oriented slots for guys that may have been playing above and beyond their skill sets.
The first shot of the game vs. Colorado, a power play tally by Johansen seemed to swing immediate dividends the Preds way, but the Avalanche came back to win the game. That loss was followed by further defeat in Arizona and Chicago. Johansen has not scored in the previous two games. In fact, with Jones in Columbus and Johansen in Nashville, neither team has won a game in three tries, though Columbus did grab a single point with an overtime loss to Carolina.
Tuesday night’s defeat to rival Chicago was brutal to watch on many levels. Falling behind 3-0, the Preds, at times, seemed to be getting reasonable scoring chances. But whether it was Hawks goalie Corey Crawford being up for the task, or Preds shooters just missing opportunities left and right, things just did not click.
A quick strike by Nashville immediately after Chicago scored its’ third goal cut the lead to 3-1 and a late tally with just seconds left in the contest made the game look close and ended 3-2. As has happened many times this season, the Predators found themselves with a territorial advantage, as well as a shot advantage (the team outshot Chicago 43-23 for the game,) but never seemed to have all their weapons looking organized and dominant.
The Hawks, playing without a few key starters, were able to find both goaltender Pekka Rinne, and defensemen (mostly Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm) out of position and were able to capitalize on their opportunities.
Moving forward, Nashville concludes the road trip with a Thursday game in Winnipeg. After beating the Jets 7-0 in mid-November, the Preds dropped a 4-1 decision to them earlier this month to begin this current four game slide. This will be the first meeting of the two teams in Manitoba.
Following the Jets game, the Preds will host Minnesota on Saturday night, and then Chicago on Tuesday night. Obviously each of these games are paramount towards Nashville taking a step out of the quicksand and back onto firm ice. The month concludes with another four game road trip, all of which is spent north in Canada, and again, all are against Western Conference teams trying to unseat the Preds from this final precarious playoff position.
The All Star weekend festivities, here in Nashville at the end of the month, will provide the team some much needed rest (save for Preds selections Rinne, Shea Weber and Roman Josi.)
Let’s collectively hope for a solid effort in Winnipeg on Thursday, and we hope to see you at the arena for Saturday, and of course, Tuesday’s big rematch against the Hawks.