Who are these guys? Let’s be honest, even the most optimistic Nashville Predators were probably scouring vacation websites, looking for destinations to visit once the 56th and final regular season game concluded. However, at some point around the middle of March, they almost seemingly became a team from a movie. Did they receive one of those magical speeches from coach Gordon Bombay from the Mighty Ducks, or Tony “Duke” Evers from Rocky or even coach Morris Buttermaker from the Bad News Bears? They were all down to either, the Iceland Vikings, Ivan Drago or the Yankees to start with before staging an improbable comeback. Well except the Bears, technically, but you get the point.
The Predators are on their way to pulling off a similar feat. They’re 9-1-0 in their last 10 games and have won 11 of their previous 13. All the stats that weighed them down during the first half of the season are no longer a sore point.
Since March 15, the Predators’ power play has been clicking at just under 26 percent, which puts them comfortably inside the top-10 leaguewide during that span, and their penalty kill has been nearly unbeatable, shutting down slightly less than 92 percent of the opposition’s opportunities, the NHL’s second best since the turnaround. Not to mention, they have certainly found their scoring touch, emphatically demonstrated by their second 7-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on April 8.
Again, using the same time frame, the Predators have averaged more than three goals per game, another top-10 stat of theirs. This newfound offense hasn’t led to a run-and-gun style of game either, as their defense has also become far more efficient. The team is surrendering just 1.54 goals each outing, which is by far the best in the league since the middle of last month.
But the Predators’ recent success will certainly be tested by their upcoming schedule. Are they for real or will the division’s contenders bring them back down to earth?
During this impressive and surprising run that has brought the Predators storming back into the playoff hunt, they may have had the luxury of playing some of the division’s, let’s say… lesser teams. Their 11-2-0 run consists of four wins over the basement dwelling Red Wings. Now, yes there are no easy victories in the NHL, and any team can beat the league’s best on any given night. But come on, we all know that the majority of the time the better team wins.
The Predators have compiled a 4-1-0 record versus playoff teams while on this recent tear. However, there needs to be some clarification, two of those four victories came against the Chicago Blackhawks when they were technically the fourth-place team before the Predators leapfrogged them after sweeping the two-game set at the end of March. The Blackhawks aren’t a bad team by any stretch of the imagination, but really, they’re the Predators’ equals at best.
Against non-playoff teams, they’ve amassed a record of 7-1-0 during that period. So, while you can’t take anything away from the Predators — hey a win’s a win — you do have to wonder how they’ll fair up when their upcoming opponents consist of, the Tampa Bay Lightning, followed by the Dallas Stars, the Lightning again, a two game set against the Carolina Hurricanes, a week’s worth of games playing the Blackhawks, and finally wrapping up the month with a back-to-back set against the Florida Panthers.
Let’s just recap and break it down. The Predators will go head-to-head against a playoff team in six of their next 10 games. With all six contests featuring one of the three teams running away with the division and proving to be serious Stanley Cup contenders. Sprinkle in one matchup against the Stars, who, to be fair, we don’t know exactly how good they are due to all the missed time, but are certainly a team who could make a push; and three games against the Blackhawks, who will be extremely agitated after losing all five meetings to the Predators so far this season. There will be no games against the Red Wings or Columbus Blue Jackets during this impending gauntlet.
The Predators are hot right now and could come out of this looking like a team who no one should want to play when the postseason rolls around, should they qualify. But they will certainly be tested.
If You Want to Be The Best, You Have to Beat the Best
Against the Lightning they are 1-5-0 during the six games played this season. They have managed just 2.3 goals a game, while giving up 4.3, and their penalty kill has been extremely porous, stopping the ever-dangerous Lightning just 65 percent of the time while down a man.
The Predators fair a little better against the Panthers, but not by much, holding a 2-4-0 record this season. As you would expect, they have been outscored by the Cats from the Sunshine State during this season series, and they are allowing nearly 39 shots per game.
Then there’s possibly the Predators worst matchup: the Hurricanes. The team from the neighboring state has definitely had Nashville’s number this season. The Predators are yet to win a game against the fashionable Cup favorites. They are 0-3-1, and averaged less than two goals per game while surrendering four. Remember the incredible penalty-killing run the Predators have been on recently, mentioned earlier? Well, that will definitely be put to the test against these Hurricanes, who seemingly score at will whenever the Predators have a man sitting in the box. They’ve only managed to kill 50 percent of their penalties taken against the Hurricanes during their first four meetings. That’s right, only half!
Their poor special teams has definitely hurt them, too. The matchup on March 9, saw the Predators jump out to a 2-0 lead before taking several trips to the sin bin. At which point the Hurricanes seized the opportunity, notching two unanswered goals that came on the power play to tie the game. They would go on to an overtime victory, snatching the possibility of the Predators finally sliding into the win column against the regularly seldom-seen team.
The Injury Bug Continues to Put up Numbers
So, we know the Predators have a tough stretch ahead, and it’s been made even worse with the news of Eeli Tolvanen’s injury that has deemed him week-to-week. The rookie who has been silencing the doubters, is the Predators’ leading scorer during their last 13 games. They’ll also be thinner on the blue line, with Dante Fabbro listed as week-to-week and Alexandre Carrier out 3-5 weeks.
Sadly, we’re not done. The Herd line — if you’re familiar with Predators’ television broadcasts — consisting of Colton Sissons, Yakov Trenin and Mathieu Olivier will be down a member, as Olivier will be out of action for 4-6 weeks. This is all piling on top of the missing pieces of Matt Duchene, Ryan Ellis, Filip Forsberg — who has 10 points in just six games against the Panthers — and Mark Borowiecki. Needless to say, the Predators are suiting up for a war and their cavalry is severely decimated.
If we had to label the Predators right now, it may be safer to say that they’re more like the team we witnessed from January to the beginning of March. It’s a larger sample size than the 13 games we’ve been entertained with since. However, they have a 10-game stretch coming up that throws some of the best teams in the league against them over and over again. If the Predators can continue playing at the same level that they’ve been recently or even just stay in the same ballpark, is it time for us to admit or at least question whether we misjudged them?
The Predators have been riddled with injuries, more so than the large majority of the league. Sissons is the only player who hasn’t missed any time yet. It’s the reason why the Predators have played more rookies (12) than any other team this season. The lineup has been one giant, rotating door and that must be taken into consideration when trying to figure out who this team is or making sense of their success or overall lack thereof. However, if the next 10 games go as well as the previous 13 for the Predators, you now have a sample size of 23 games, which is more than 40 percent of the season. The rest of April will be telling, and depending on the results, it could be telling us to finally take the Predators seriously.
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