As the playoffs inch closer and closer, the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff picture remains as muddled as ever.
The Columbus Blue Jackets seem to have a strong hold on the sixth seed with 90 points, followed up by the Anaheim Ducks with 88 points. Two points behind them are Central Division combatants the Nashville Predators and St Louis Blues—both with 86 points.
If you look just two spots lower, both the Edmonton Oilers and Minnesota Wild are in striking distance, but may require a miracle to sneak into the playoffs with 83 points.
With St Louis visiting Phoenix and Nashville hosting Chicago, Tuesday night will go a long way in determining which team strengthens their hold on the eighth spot.
Then again, so will a lot of things.
Just days ago, I was worried about the Preds’ ability to stay in the playoff picture. It had nothing to do with a surging St Louis team or a once-hot Dwayne Roloson in Edmonton. Even Marian Gaborik’s monster week two weeks ago didn’t have me fretting over the Preds postseason future.
It all had to do with the injury list.
Now you’ll be hard-pressed to find a team in the NHL, or any professional sport for that matter, that will use injuries as an excuse. The beat writers may crow about it, it may be painfully obvious, and the teams may even complain about it themselves behind the curtain, but the reason a team misses the playoffs, at least from it’s point of view, is because it just wasn’t prepared.
Just once I’d like to hear them say “You know what? We were completely screwed down the stretch. Our leading goal-scorer went down with a concussion, our second-line center got hurt in practice of all things, one of our most underrated scorers broke his leg which finished his season, and we were missing one of strongest skaters for the past year and a half. We finished just out of the playoff picture with that kind of band-aid lineup. I’d like to see you do better”.
Fact is, that’s how the season has been for the Nashville Predators.
Going into the season, they had hoped to have Steve Sullivan back to start the year. Unfortunately, Sullivan didn’t play his first game until early January. In those first three months, the Predators went 18-19-3, and lost nine of those games (three shootout/overtime and six regulation) by one goal or fewer.
Since Sullivan came back to the lineup, the Predators have been on a tear: They’ve beaten top teams like Boston and Detroit, gone 21-13-5, and they’ve only lost seven one-goal games, two in regulation. Sullivan has already contributed 28 points in 38 games (he missed the first game after his comeback), which is highlighted by nine power play points, and two game-winning goals.
That injury-shortened production alone would’ve helped Nashville gain a little breathing room.
But Sullivan wasn’t the only player the Preds missed for a long period of time this year. Just as the games really started to matter, leading goal scorer and Captain Jason Arnott suffered a concussion and missed games from March 12th until April 3rd. The loss of leadership was noticeable, and the loss of scoring even more so.
Even as the resurgent Sullivan put up points, Nashville slid in their Captain’s absence. During the time without their Captain, the Preds only managed more than four goals three times, with two of those times coming against the Los Angeles Kings. While the Preds had a winning record over that span (5-3-3), the Preds seemed lost when it got to the extra-frame, posting the most overtime losses of the season in the month of March with four.
As the playoffs got closer though, it seemed that the Hockey Gods didn’t want the Preds to sniff the playoff again this year. David Legwand broke his cheekbone in practice on March 26th, and just over a week later, Martin Erat’s season ended due to a broken leg.
In other words, on April 3rd the Nashville Predators were missing Jason Arnott, David Legwand, and Martin Erat. Or three of their top four scoring forwards, alongside a banged-up Jean-Pierre Dumont.
Because of this late-season rash of injuries though, players like Joel Ward (9 points in his last 10 games) and Cal O’Reilly (Four points in six games and a plus-2 since March 26th) have become even more important to the Preds’ present, nevermind the future.
So with tonight’s matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks’ being the biggest of the season, the Predators can’t watch the scoreboard in the Desert until they do their part because, injuries or not, they’re still in the playoffs, if just by the hair on their chinny chin chin.
And if they miss out? Well you can’t blame the team that faces Chicago, Detroit (in Detroit), and Minnesota (in Minny) to close out the season for trying.
Sometimes the Hockey Gods want what they want…