“You play to win the game!” Those six words have been uttered so much; they’ve seemingly become sports pop culture. However, with the Nashville Predators’ season living nowhere near up to expectations, many fans may have turned their attention to how high of a draft pick the team can at least earn – if that’s even the right word – after suffering through this misery.
But while you may have been focusing on psyching yourself up to watch what could be on most nights, an embarrassment, you may have missed the Predators quietly collecting points, which has kept them hanging around. They are not that far from sliding into the fourth spot in the division, and as we know this year, the top four teams from each division make the playoffs. So, despite the Predators ripping your heart out for the majority of the season with some head-scratching, infuriating and downright loathsome effort and play, you don’t think they could still actually… you know?
It’s a three-horse race in The Discover Central Division. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes and the Florida Panthers pretty much have those spots locked up. The only thing left for those three teams is positioning.
But as mentioned, the fourth spot is what the Predators are chasing and currently it is held by the Chicago Blackhawks, who the Predators just so happen to have a two-game, weekend set coming up against very shortly. This will be a massive series, as there will be four points on the line and the Predators trail the Blackhawks by, you guessed it, four points.
Now the Predators can’t and won’t get too far ahead of themselves when it comes to the upcoming matchup. They will take it one game at a time, you know all that good sports cliché stuff. But it’s hard not to look at the chaos that could ensue if the Predators can make up significant ground by taking all four points from the Hawks or even three of four.
Predators on the Prowl
The Predators are definitely feeling themselves right now, especially after dismantling the Detroit Red Wings, 7-1 on March 25. Many people are probably arguing that the win against the division’s worst team is nice, but it was against the division’s worst team.
Well, although the beat-down victory doesn’t carry as much weight as say, defeating the Lightning or the Hurricanes, it should give the Predators confidence. They can score; their offense didn’t walk out the door when injuries ravaged the team.
But its not just that one game that has given some glimmering light to making a push for that top-four spot.
The Predators have won three in a row – a season-high streak – and they have won five of their previous six contests. Since March 14, they’re second in the league for points percentage, ninth in goals for per game and first in goals-against average. That’s right, first!
Then there’s the special teams, the facet of the game that has caused the Predators so much anguish, not just this season, but for the past few seasons. It may come as a surprise, but their man advantage and penalty kill are actually strengths right now. Again, using the same time span as before, the Predators have a top-10 powerplay – converting 25% of their opportunities – and their penalty kill is third-best in the NHL.
The Predators put themselves in such a hole this season that they’re going to need help in order to make a late-season push for the playoffs. However, they have their upcoming matchups on their side. As mentioned, the Predators are chasing the Blackhawks for the final qualifying spot. Well, the Predators have played their long-time rival from the Windy City just twice. Remember, during this shortened and travel-restricted season, the Predators will play their divisional foes eight times each. There are still six games left on the schedule between these two teams, including a week towards the end of April where they meet three times in a row.
Although it’s not a great sample size, again just two games, the Predators have found success against the Blackhawks. They’re 2-0, have surrendered less than two goals a game on average, and have a fairly large lead in the shot margin, averaging 40.5 to the Blackhawk’s 25.
Unfortunately for the Predators, they aren’t alone in the chase for fourth. There is the matter of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The pesky team from the Buckeye State is currently ahead of the Predators by one point, thanks to Oliver Bjorkstrand’s goal with 16 seconds left in regulation, sending the game against the Hurricanes to overtime, which they ultimately lost.
The Predators don’t have the luxury of somewhat controlling their own destiny with a plethora of head-to-head matchups with the Blue Jackets as they do against the Blackhawks. The two squads have met six times already, leaving just two more meetings remaining.
However, the Predators cannot be disappointed with how they’ve played against the Blue Jackets this season. They are 5-1 against John Tortorella’s club and out of those six games, Columbus has walked away with just two points in total.
So, the Predators will need a little help from others to keep the Blue Jackets in check. Luckily for the Predators, the Jackets’ remaining schedule is not exactly a walk in the park. Of their final 22 games, six are against the division-leading, Lightning; four are against the Panthers, who are currently 3-0-1 against them; and two – as previously mentioned – are against the Predators.
The Predators are in a great position to make a push. There are a lot of factors going their way. Although there are no guarantees in sports and the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets or both could spoil the party by not losing the games the Predators need them to, the Predators may not be as dead in the water as they seemed to be literally one month ago.
So, You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance?
Yes, there’s a chance that the Predators could be playing beyond the regular season this year. According to MoneyPuck, the Predators have a 33.1% chance of making the playoffs, which is substantially better than the Blue Jackets’ 4.2%, a tick higher than the Dallas Stars’ 30.5%, and slighter lower than the Blackhawks’ 35.4%. This could fill fans and the team with confidence, but there’s one looming question needing to be addressed: Should the Predators really want to make the playoffs?
As mentioned earlier, the top three slots in the division are all but set, meaning the best the Predators could hope for is the fourth and final spot, which would set them up with a first-round series against the top seed. The Predators may be able to squeak out a win or two against the Lightning or Hurricanes, but do you really have faith that they could take out either of those teams in seven games?
The Lightning is looking to build a dynasty and has beaten the Predators in five of the six games they’ve played this year. Against the Hurricanes it’s a similar story. In fact, the Predators have yet to beat Rod Brind’Amour’s crew this season, currently holding a 0-3-1 record. The Predators have averaged less than two goals per game versus the Hurricanes while surrendering four. So, the stats aren’t great.
All this may be setting up for a quick bounce from the first round, with nothing to show for it, other than a damaged draft position.
Arguably, if the Predators are rebuilding, they need to commit to it. Draft picks will be vital in the process and not just the picks they can lure away from trade partners, they need to be mindful of their own too.
But you play to win the game. The logic may argue that the Predators need to finish what they started – a dreadful season with the upside of great draft positioning – and making a push does nothing but hurt the team and prolong this frustrating season.
Nevertheless, the Predators could be on the cusp of making a run and flipping the script on this season. You can’t be mad at professional athletes for focusing on the here and now, placing the utmost importance in winning games today and letting tomorrow take care of itself.
I graduated from Mount Royal University with a degree in Journalism with the hopes to pursue a career in sports media. I have been following hockey for many years at various different levels. Whether playing, watching or writing about it, hockey has played a massive role in my life. I was the sports editor at The Calgary Journal as well as a sports columnist for The Calgary Reflector. Follow on Twitter: @A_Grant27