Unlike the last two seasons where the end of the regular season meant packing bags and heading to their respective homes, the Nashville Predators find themselves in the thick of the seedings for the post-season. Once an odds on favorite for the Presidents Trophy (given to the team with most points in the regular season, and clinched last night by the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference,) Nashville has lost four games in a row since their ticket to the playoffs was punched two Saturdays ago in Washington.
Having dropped this week’s Saturday home game to the Dallas Stars in overtime, after coming back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game in the third period, the Preds continued to baffle their fans with their play. The team dominates games for long stretches of time, only to find themselves up by the slimmest of margins, and then, as if in the blink of an eye, give up quick goals and find themselves trailing, despite the wide shot margin in their favor. Saturday, they were able to grab a point by taking the game into overtime.
Last night, in Colorado, facing an Avalanche team whose season was put to bed earlier in the week, they wrote a similar script, and faced further disappointment. This time, without a point. Rookie center Calle Jarnkrok started the scoring in the first period as the Preds were outshooting the Avs, 6-0. By the midway point in the second period the shot advantage had climbed to 26-12, but the Avs took advantage of a turnover created by Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm, who collided with an on ice official, and Jarome Iginla netted the tying goal. Just nine seconds later, Ryan O’Reilly of the Avs fired a shot that beat Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne, and once again, having dominated play for the better part of the first two periods, the team found themselves trailing 2-1.
An early strike by the Preds Ryan Ellis tied the game at two, but seconds later a seeming go ahead goal for Nashville was waved off when officials said Predator forward Paul Gaustad made contact with Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov. While the replay clearly showed Varlamov tripping over his own skate, the call on the ice stood (it was not a reviewable call by the league office in Toronto) and the game continued to be knotted at two. A little more than five minutes later, Avs rookie forward Joey Hishon beat Rinne, and despite game shot totals favoring Nashville 42-23, the game ended in favor of the home team 3-2, and a disappointed Predator team returned home to Nashville for its final home game of the season, this Thursday against the Minnesota Wild.
Minnesota comes in having clinched its playoff spot last night with a win over the Chicago Black Hawks, and may once again turn to second-half sensation, and former Pred for a minute last year, Devan Dubnyk in goal. Dubnyk has now started a Wild team record thirty-six games in a row, including two wins against Nashville. The Wild were last in the Conference at the time of the acquisition of the 28-year old netminder, and now find themselves in position to grab the top wild-card spot (7th seed) and perhaps spoil the post-season party for a much higher ranked team like the St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks, or possibly even the Nashville Predators.
With just two remaining games, the Blues lead the Central Division with 105 points, Nashville, having squandered points in their last four games has 104, and Chicago, who lost to Minnesota last night, has 102. In the West, Anaheim has 107, and Vancouver currently holds the second spot with just 97. This, of course, means that post season match-ups are in total flux and only after both games have been played, and the season comes to an end on Saturday, will we know where and when the Predators will begin their quest for the Stanley Cup.
While the team has struggled, there is no doubt that Rinne, still the team’s most valuable player, remains in net, Shea Weber-Roman Josi remain the top defensive pairing, Ryan Ellis-Mattias Ekholm and Seth Jones remain 3, 4, and 5 on the blueline, but questions have to be asked about the play of recently acquired Cody Franson, who has found himself out-of-favor with the coaching staff, nailed to the bench for long stretches during games. Both Anton Volchenkov and Victor Bartley have appeared in games recently, and with these last two regular season matches, it will be interesting to see if Coach Laviolette inserts one into the lineup in place of the struggling Franson.
Not that we can lay all the blame on a single player, as some offensive weapons have been “missing in action” over long stretches of the second half of the season after promising starts looked to supply much bigger numbers than are going to shake out at the final horn. Colin Wilson has just one goal in his last 20 games, and Craig Smith has just two in his last 15. Both of these guys looked like they were having breakout “career” years, but now are just merely barely surpassing previous totals from season’s past. Flashy rookie Filip Forsberg has scored three goals in his last seven games, but that comes after not lighting the lamp in the prior twelve.
Mike Santorelli, acquired from Toronto, just before the trade deadline with Franson was a healthy scratch last night after illness kept him out of the Dallas game on Saturday. He has scored just once in the twenty games he’s played in Preds gold. Eric Nystrom remains injured, and whether his services will be made available for these final two games is still a question mark. His contribution to the team’s early success is based more on grit and determination than goal scoring.
Minnesota wraps up the Preds home schedule, and a trip to Dallas on Saturday wraps up the regular season. Points are needed to secure home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and points are needed to go into the playoffs with confidence. We’ll be back next week with our first playoff blog, and hope to provide you with even more coverage as the post-season trudges on. Follow us on Twitter, and Facebook, and my personal Twitter account is usually active during Preds home games. Thanks for reading!