After taking both games of a two-game set against the Chicago Blackhawks near the end of March, the Nashville Predators sit in a playoff spot with less than six weeks remaining in the season. Climbing out of an early-season hole is both easier and harder this year than in previous campaigns, and that contrast of difficulty sits squarely on the shoulders of this season’s intra-divisional schedule. Down the stretch run, the Predators actually have a bit of an advantage over their competitors, with both an easier schedule, and the tiebreaker in hand.
With all of the games being played within the division, every win means a loss for the teams chasing you, while every loss means losing double the ground against those same teams. It also means that even in the games that Nashville isn’t playing, one of the teams is guaranteed two points, and you just have to cross your fingers that it doesn’t go into extra-time and become a three-point game.
Taking Advantage of the Schedule
With only 20 games to go for each of Nashville, Chicago, and the Columbus Blue Jackets entering Tuesday’s action, and 24 remaining for the Dallas Stars, the end of the regular season is sneaking up on everyone. Thus far, the Predators hold the last playoff spot in the Discover Central Division, and the upcoming strength of schedule is a main reason why they are a good bet to hold onto that slot.
The Predators have only eight games remaining against the three teams above them in the standings, with the other 12 coming against teams either tied with or below them in the standings. That includes four more games against the Blackhawks, who Nashville is already up four games to none against in their season series. As a bonus, the Predators play 12 of their final 20 games at home, where fans have been welcomed back to provide some added support to the team.
Of the four teams within striking distance of that last playoff berth, the Predators have the lowest opponent win percentage at .563%. The Blackhawks and Stars have a very similar schedule remaining at .577%, while the Blue Jackets have a very tough slog coming with their opponents at a combined .604%. As a reminder, the way that the NHL calculates winning percentage is flawed, and it means that there are 21 of the 32 teams who are at .500% or better. The Predators are sitting at 18 wins, 17 losses, and one loss in overtime, meaning they have an equal number of wins and losses, but are averaging more than one standings point per game, which is how the NHL tracks the percentages.
The Predators will hopefully be able to continue to push their pace in the coming weeks, because if it comes down to the final few games then they may be in trouble. The Predators have only picked up a single point so far in their four games against the Hurricanes, and in their last two games of the year, they will be hosting the Hurricanes. However, they can hang their hats on the fact that they hold an edge in the first tiebreaker, with 13 wins in regulation thus far; the next closest is Chicago with 10.
The Importance of a Playoff Berth
With this kind of advantage leading into the stretch run of the season, the Predators should be doing their best to take advantage of a strong chance at making the playoffs. This is especially important for a smaller market team like Nashville, where the economic bottom line of the season is greatly affected by whether or not the team makes the playoffs (doubly so if more and more fans can attend games).
The trajectory will be affected by what general manager David Poile decides to do at the trade deadline, but with the team playing themselves back into a playoff spot, and a lighter schedule to take advantage of, he owes it to the team not to completely strip things down. The core group is still in their prime, and with Juuse Saros turning things around, the Predators could be a surprise team entering the playoffs on a hot streak.