Predators Prowl: Capitalizing on Soft Schedule…Sort Of

What’s the drawback of being a sports fan? Let me start over. What’s one of several drawbacks of following sports? False expectations. Specifically when we feel that a team or player should perform at a certain level only to be let down when that individual or group of individuals lay a dud. And that’s just how the Predators closed out this week.

When I first thought about writing this week’s Predators Prowl, I had in mind that I would go heavy on discussing the team’s ability to win the games they are supposed to and take advantage of a soft spot in the schedule. But then their game against the Ottawa Senators on Dec. 17 happened, and that idea went out the window.

Related: Last Week’s Predators Prowl

Sure they got a point in the matchup and went 3-0-1 since last Tuesday, but each of the week’s final three games went beyond regulation. They played the Senators twice and had one game each against the Vancouver Canucks and New Jersey Devils, all three among the worst teams in their respective divisions.

The Predators opened this week with a strong showing in a home game against the Senators that they won 3-1, the result of scoring three unanswered goals after being down 1-0 to start. They didn’t play as well against the Canucks as they allowed two shorthanded goals, although the one occurred when the Canucks had pulled their goaltender, essentially making it an even-strength goal.

The Predators had a two-goal advantage in the third period before the shorthanded tally mentioned above and a power-play goal made it a tied game. However, they recovered in overtime to win the game on a Colton Sissons goal. This was a tough night for Mattias Ekholm, who was on the ice for all three Vancouver goals.

Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm
Mattias Ekholm struggled against the Canucks as he was on the ice for all three Vancouver goals. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

The Predators defeated the Devils 2-1 in a shootout in the next game despite being outshot 28-34. However, that was mainly due to the Devils’ shots on the power play, as the Predators attempted more five-on-five shots. They also created 17 more five-on-five scoring chances and didn’t allow any goals in the four times they were shorthanded. Juuse Saros started the game and earned his first win since Nov. 10.

They didn’t play well against the Senators to close out the week. They fought back from being down 3-0 after the first period to force overtime as Saros relieved Pekka Rinne to start the second. But they were lucky to reach overtime as the Senators hit a post and had two goals waved off due to a high stick. In total, a week that started with such promise ended on a more dismal note as the team looks to address some struggles moving forward.

Related: What Does Expansion Mean for the Predators

As always, let me know in the comments below your thoughts on how the team performed this week, your views on the week’s themes, and any other ideas or questions you have about the team.

Capitalizing on Weak Competition

The Predators run of having an easier schedule wasn’t only in the past week. Since Nov. 17, 11 of their 15 games were played at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. They went 9-5-1 in that span, but only had a plus-three goal differential. Their competition during that span has a combined 42-45-15 record on the season and only five of the teams they faced have a winning record. But that streak of playing a team-friendly schedule is about to change.

Nashville Predators Colton Sissons
In general, the Predators did a good job at capitalizing on a soft schedule since Nov. 17 with a 9-5-1 record in that span. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Schedule About to Get More Difficult

The road game against the Senators marked the start of a four-game road trip for the Predators. It also began a span in which they play 11 of their next 15 games on the road, which also includes a six-game road trip. They play three sets of back-to-backs between now and Feb. 1, with two of them involving two road games.

In their upcoming schedule, they will play road games against the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Colorado Avalanche, and Vegas Golden Knights. We’ll quickly find out what the team’s made of and whether or not they’re a real contender this season.

Saros Back on Track

With their schedule about to get more difficult, especially with several back-to-backs, it’s great news that Saros has started playing better. When he started against the Devils, it was his first time in net in a week and just the third time he’s received playing time in December. He was excellent in that game, turning aside 33 of 34 shots, including five of six high danger shots. He saw significant action early on, but the team was good at preventing shots within the slot.

Juuse Saros, Nashville Predators
Juuse Saros was in net twice for the Predators this week, once as the starter and once in relief of Pekka Rinne. He played great and won his first game since Nov. 10. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

He followed that up by relieving Rinne in the Dec. 17 matchup against the Senators. With the team down 3-0 after the first period, head coach Peter Laviolette turned to Saros, who didn’t let him down. He stopped 11 of the 12 shots he faced, with the only goal he allowed being the overtime winner that was largely Ryan Johansen’s fault thanks to a turnover and lackluster defensive effort. In general though, Saros looked more confident in net the past week than he has in a month. He was on his angles, was aggressive when necessary, and allowed his natural talents to make saves.

News, Top Performers, and the Week Ahead

On Dec. 13, the Predators returned top prospect Eeli Tolvanen to the AHL, and that’s okay. We now wait to see if he is invited to represent Finland at the 2019 World Junior Championships or if he is recalled to the NHL later this season. Other World Junior news of note: Predators prospect Jáchym Kondelík is still set to represent the Czech Republic.

Related: Tolvanen Relegation Right Move by Predators

Also, defense prospect Vladislav Yeryomenko played for Belarus at the 2019 Division 1, Group A U20 World Championships that took place from Dec. 9 through Dec. 15. He helped the Belorussians earn a second-place finish as he had two points in five games.

Vladislav Yeryomenko of the Calgary Hitmen
Predators defense prospect Vladislav Yeryomenko represented Belarus at the 2019 Division 1, Group A U20 World Championships this past week. He is shown here as a member of the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen. (Candice Ward/Calgary Hitmen)

Finally, some good news on the injury front. Kyle Turris returned to action against the Canucks and immediately contributed with an assist as his line with Calle Järnkrok and Craig Smith generated offense all game. P.K. Subban is also on the team’s current road trip and is likely to return to action in the near future.

Top Performers

  • Roman Josi – 2 goals, 3 assists
  • Ryan Johansen – 4 assists
  • Juuse Saros – 2 games played, stopped 44 of 46 shots, .957 save percentage, 1.14 goals against average

The Week Ahead

  • Dec. 18 – at Chicago Blackhawks
  • Dec. 20 – at Philadelphia Flyers
  • Dec. 22 – at Boston Bruins

*All stats came from Hockey-Reference