Predators Weekly: Playoffs Here We Come

Welcome to the inaugural Predators Weekly post here at The Hockey Writers. I will primarily be taking the reins on this, but look out for my colleagues to take one or two of these sometime soon, as well. The theme of this series is quite simple: I will be recapping what goes on over the week for the Nashville Predators, whether the week is uneventful or not.

Predators Win Biggest Game of the Year Against Stars

You’ll often hear NHL broadcasts, mostly local, make the statement that the game is the most important of the season for whichever team you’ve chosen to watch. The phrase is not uncommon. However, in this case, it was correct. The Predators’ playoff chances rode on this game specifically. Per Dom Luszczyszyn’s playoff chances and projected standings model (from “NHL Stanley Cup playoff chances and projected standings,” The Athletic, 05/09/2021), the team’s percent chance of securing the fourth spot in the Discover Central Division went from around 50 percent to about 85 percent.

The same can be said for Moneypuck‘s model as well, which had the Predators and Dallas Stars both in the same realm — around 49-50 percent each — but then catapulted the Predators to a staggering 82.2 percent and a sad 17.8 percent for the Stars. The game itself was hyped up for over a week and a half, and it delivered. At least, as much as tight-checking hockey game with only one goal could.

Erik Haula Nashville Predators
Erik Haula, Nashville Predators (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It took 63:32 for the first and only goal of the game to be scored on Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin, thanks to a dual effort from Mattias Ekholm and Erik Haula, who was one of the most noticeable players in the Predators’ lineup all night. Ekholm made a great play at his own blue line and swatted the puck out of the air, preventing a looping dump-in over his head to a streaking Blake Comeau.

Mere seconds later, he obtained the offensive blue line through smooth-skating, charged the net wide, wrapped around, and threw the puck in front to Haula for the sweet tap-in. After the first standing ovation of the season from the Predators fans in attendance, it seemed as if this was a fitting end to the night.

Predators Add Fuel to the Fire in Win Over Columbus Blue Jackets

Another game, another win past 60 minutes for this team, and another game-winning goal influenced by Haula. Seriously, what is with this guy and his success in overtime? This game was much more of a whirlwind in terms of scoring than the previous one. The game ended 4-3, so at first glance, one might think that the game was close throughout the night. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Predators, for the most part, dominated the game. Outside of a rough span in the third period, the team kept the struggling Blue Jackets at bay and was, at one point, leading 3-0. However, that was short-lived, as Blue Jackets forward Emil Bemström scored a natural hat trick to knot the game at three.

The Blue Jackets forced overtime after a short flurry from the Predators towards the end of the third. In overtime, Filip Forsberg started it off with a partial breakaway, which was thwarted by none other than Bemström. The Predators regained possession, and thanks to a sweet passing play between Calle Jarnkrok and Haula, the puck found its way to Roman Josi, who potted the goal and scored his second of the game. It was a massive win for the boys in gold, and the other team with a cat mascot, the Florida Panthers, beat the Stars, which pushed the Predators to four points up on Dallas.

The Fire Was Doused in Tough Loss to Blue Jackets

Unfortunately, the Predators’ attempt to clinch the last spot in the Discover Central Division was spoiled by the same team they beat previously. This game leaned far more in Columbus’ favor than the previous, as evidenced by their almost absurd 3.46 expected goals for (xGF), which is the 12th highest total they’ve faced this season. Both teams had moments of dominance throughout the game, but defensive lapses prevented the Predators from coming out on top despite being tied towards the end of the third period.

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In the end, this game showcased one thing: Juuse Saros can only do so much. The Finnish goaltender has been riding a heater since returning from injury, but there is only so much he can do when the team in front of him becomes stagnant. If you aren’t clearing out guys from the front of the net or screening your goaltender, your chances of winning are low. The Predators had to learn that the hard way.

Predators Surge in Win Against the Hurricanes

The Predators came out on top in a “win and you’re in” scenario against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes are a team that Nashville has struggled against all season long, going a horrid 0-5-0 before the Saturday showdown. The Hurricanes put up an unfathomable 6.72 xGF per Evolving-Hockey in the previous game, with 5.47 coming at even strength. It’s safe to say that the Predators needed the win, not just from a playoff-clinching perspective, but also from a confidence perspective. Considering that the Hurricanes were going to be their first-round matchup, it would help to have a game or two to build from, and that’s what they got.

After a scoreless first, the Predators got out to a 1-0 lead thanks to a beautiful Mikael Granlund backhand saucer pass connecting with Luke Kunin in the open space, who backhanded it past goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic. They made it 2-0 on a perfect tape-to-tape stretch pass from Ryan Ellis to, guess who, Granlund, who tapped it to Kunin again for a breakaway that led to his second goal of the game.

Luke Kunin Nashville Predators
Luke Kunin, Nashville Predators (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

The Canes got one back thanks to a beautiful passing play finished off by Morgan Geekie. Although nothing else really sparked after that, Haula sealed the deal with an empty netter from center ice. This was the best the Predators have looked all season against Carolina, and the stats reflected that. It’s only one game, but it’s a start. In the end, confidence is confidence.

Overall Week Recap

The Predators went 3-1-0 this week, which is what they needed at this time of the year. They officially clinched a playoff spot, and the turnaround this season has been tremendous. From what looked to be a rebuild to a playoff team, they have been quite the story. Despite a loss to the Blue Jackets, they still managed to overcome their woes and defeat the group that had been giving them fits all year. It was an important week, and one that the Predators came out of triumphant.

Three Stars of the Week

First Star: Juuse Saros

The kid is lights-out. A .935 save percentage in four games, including a shutout, puts him at the top spot.

Second Star: Roman Josi

Another guy who had a phenomenal week, Josi, was dominant in pretty much every facet of the game. He potted two goals, including the overtime winner in Columbus, and against Dallas, he had a crazy 94.07 xGF%. He dominated play as well as anyone offensively and was still reasonably solid on the defensive end of the ice.

Third Star: Erik Haula

Haula was very solid and has continued to show improvement from his performance at the beginning of the season, where he was essentially useless. He scored the overtime winner against Dallas, sealed the deal against the Hurricanes, and made the gorgeous pass to Josi for his sweet overtime finish against Columbus. That’s enough to earn him the third star for this week.

Honorable Mention: Mattias Ekholm

It was hard not to put Ekholm on here, so I had to mention him at least. He had a great week that included two extremely vital assists on two of the most important goals of the season. He was a horse on the back end and easily the second-best defenseman this week behind, obviously, Josi.

The Week Ahead

The Predators still have one game in the regular season against the same Hurricanes on Monday. One big storyline coming out of it will be Pekka Rinne. Will it be his last start in the NHL? It’s possible, which should make everyone shed a collective tear.

Rinne has been the staple of goaltending for the Predators since he came into the league. The number of memories he has given the franchise is innumerable. It is hard to argue against his number going up in the rafters once his career has finished. There is no official word about his retirement. Still, with his contract ending after this season, and his want to retire as a Predator (from ‘Pekka Rinne on NHL trade deadline possibilities: ‘I do want to retire as a Predator,” The Athletic, 03/15/2021), it’s hard to see him staying another year.

Pekka Rinne Nashville Predators
Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Whether or not he retires this season is still up in the air, but there’s no question that his playing days in the NHL are numbered. He’s had a legendary career and is arguably the greatest Finnish goaltender of all time. He’s certainly a well-respected player throughout the hockey community and will undoubtedly receive a hero’s send-off.

That’s it for the first edition of Predators Weekly! Be sure to check in next week for more Predators updates and recaps.