If the Nashville Predators are to avoid a possible first-round playoff matchup with the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks, a sweep of their weekend games is a must.
Trailing St. Louis by two points for third place in the Central Division after the Blues’ 2-1 shootout loss Friday night at Colorado, Nashville (39-27-11) hosts the Minnesota Wild in a day game Saturday, then visits St. Louis on Sunday.
Should the Predators win twice, they’ll enter the season’s final week in third place, although the Blues have a game in hand. Anything less than that, though, and they’ll need some real help from St. Louis opponents in order to earn a more favorable draw with Minnesota or the Pacific Division champion.
To get the matchup it wants, though, Nashville will have to earn two points against a team that has beaten it three times out of four games. That includes two wins 12 days apart in December in Nashville, with one coming Dec. 27 in which the Wild (45-24-8) prevailed 3-2 in overtime despite not arriving until hours before faceoff.
What’s more, the Predators are coming off their first back-to-back regulation losses since mid-October. After a 4-1 defeat Tuesday night in Boston, they fell 3-1 on Thursday night at home to Toronto, playing mediocre hockey for two periods before rallying in the third.
While Nashville’s odds of making the playoffs are still around 99 percent, coach Peter Laviolette is taking nothing for granted.
“Our goal is to move forward and qualify for the playoffs, and we’re not there,” he said. “We’ve got work to do.”
Part of that work involves getting the power play going. The Predators were 0 of 5 with the man advantage against Toronto, managing just one shot on net in their first four opportunities. By contrast, the Maple Leafs’ first two goals happened on the power play.
“It was terrible, to be honest,” Nashville forward Filip Forsberg said. “For the first two periods on the power play, we didn’t do anything.”
While the Predators sputtered, Minnesota got its engines purring at full efficiency Thursday night in a 5-1 dumping of Ottawa, just its second win in 11 games.
Nino Niederreiter scored twice, his first goals in 16 games, and former San Jose backup goalie Alex Stalock stopped 18 shots for his first win since Jan. 12, 2016.
“I hope it’s not the culmination,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I hope we keep building. It’s one game. It’ll be a little tougher in Nashville. We’ll see how we do there.”
Despite its recent skid, Minnesota remains in second place in the Western Conference and will have home ice for the first round, barring a complete collapse in its last four games teamed with an unbeaten run by either Nashville or St. Louis.
With a closing schedule that includes two games against Colorado and one against Arizona, Minnesota should wind up no worse than second. But Boudreau and his players clearly want to get back to the level at which they played for about four months.
“The last couple of games, we were working hard and we weren’t getting those two points,” forward Chris Stewart said after the Ottawa win. “Tonight was a step in the right direction.”