Predators Clinch Playoff Spot Despite Series of Unfortunate Events

For the 15th time in their 24-year history, the Nashville Predators are going to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Despite dropping a 5-4 heart-breaking loss to the Calgary Flames on April 26, the one point they earned was enough to clinch their spot. With the Vegas Golden Knights losing in a shootout to the Dallas Stars, only one place remains up for grabs in the Western Conference wild-card race. Vegas will need to win out and hope Dallas drops both of their games; otherwise, a single point will clinch it for the Stars.

This is the third consecutive season that Predators head coach John Hynes will lead the team to the postseason since taking over in the 2019-20 season. Nashville has drastically changed since then, becoming a powerhouse offensive team in place of their past defensive form. They have relied on their top-six scoring that boasts two 40-goal scorers, a third line led by a sensational rookie, and one of the best goaltenders in the league this season. That’s not to mention the Norris-calibre efforts of Roman Josi, who became the eighth defenseman in NHL history to reach 93 points in one season.

Related: 4 Reasons the Avalanche Will Win the 2022 Stanley Cup

Looking ahead, the Predators will face one of the Flames or the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs, depending on how the week plays out. Both Dallas and Nashville are at 95 points with two games remaining, although the Predators have the tie-breaker with 35 regulation wins to the Stars’ 30. However, before getting ahead of ourselves, the Predators’ main story to come out of clinching their playoff berth has fans worried.

Saros Leaves Game Due to Injury

With under eight minutes remaining against the Flames, the Predators were up 4-3 and looked much better than they did in the previous two periods. In a routine play, Juuse Saros went into the butterfly position to cover the bottom of the net, but as he went from post to post, he appeared to be labouring as he got up. Saros eventually left the game, unable to put much weight on his left side, and was seen hobbling down the tunnel. The image of him helped off the ice and into the dressing room sent immediate panic throughout the Nashville arena.

Juuse Saros Nashville Predators
Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

A playoff run without Saros between the pipes is like a death sentence. If Josi is the foundation of the team, Saros is the roof that keeps it warm and prevents the interior from being rained in on. Tied for second in wins among all goaltenders, second in shots faced and first in saves, Saros is irreplaceable. Going from a 2017 AHL All-Star to a 2022 NHL All-Star, Saros has not only taken the mantle from past legend Pekka Rinne but he’s run with it and exceeded all expectations. If not for his late-game heroics on many nights, the Predators would have been out of playoff contention long ago.

As of this writing, there has been no report on the status of Saros’ injury, but Hynes mentioned that a potential update would follow today. As fans wait with bated breath, the hope is that it’s a minor tweak, and he’ll be ready to go for Game 1 of the opening round. On a short-term basis, the team’s offensive abilities should help mitigate the loss of Saros, but over a seven-game series, it won’t be an easy task.

Predators Lose Lead With .1 Seconds Remaining

Saros’ injury prompted backup David Rittich to enter the game cold. It was an unfair ask for him to become engaged in a highly-emotional game after watching his goaltending partner leave the ice in pain, but a task he was forced to take on. The former Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs‘ backup has trended downwards statistically over the last five seasons, going from a .911 save percentage in 2018-19 to .883 in 2021-22. The one thing he was required to do was keep the puck out of the net with less than six minutes remaining in the game. Unfortunately, a buzzer-beater squeaked by him with a fraction of a second remaining.

It was the first and only shot of the period Rittich faced. In fairness, the Flames did everything they possibly could to score the game-tying goal. Swarming the net and not allowing the Predators any room to breathe, Matthew Tkachuk managed to find a small pocket between Rittich’s glove and left pad. The green light did come on, indicating the end of the period, but the replay showed the puck travel the goal line exactly one frame before time had run out. It was a photo finish to the period, but one that completely deflated an otherwise enthusiastic Nashville crowd. It didn’t help that Tkachuk was a pest all night, getting under the skin of several Predators.

Rittich Struggles in Overtime

To make matters worse, Rittich gave up an unacceptable goal in overtime to allow the Flames to complete the comeback. Mere moments after giving Predators fans a reason to cheer with a highlight reel save, an Elias Lindholm floater just got by Rittich and crawled over the goal line to end it. As the red light lit up, the entire crowd in Nashville fell silent. Completely stunned, it was the result they had feared the moment Saros left the game. A tight game with tons of chances and opportunities, but one that ultimately drew to a close due to poor goaltending.

David Rittich Nashville Predators
David Rittich, Nashville Predators (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Should the Predators and Flames meet in the first round, it could make for one of the best opening series of the 2022 Playoffs. Both teams play a hard game, love the physical side, and can score in bunches. It also marks the first time we’ll see rookie Tanner Jeannot in a postseason atmosphere, one that will benefit his style.

Many questions will come out of the Predators’ camp; Will Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg continue scoring at their pace? Will Josi burn up the postseason as he did in the regular season? Can the Herd Line be effective against the Flames’ top six? The one that is certainly burning through the minds of fans as the season comes to a close is whether Saros will be available for Game 1. If he isn’t, Nashville may face a first-round exit for the fourth year in a row.

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