Preds realistic about ‘remote’ playoff chances

Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said his team’s chances of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs were “remote” after losing 4-3 on Sunday to the Chicago Blackhawks.

He updated that after losing 1-0 to St. Louis on Tuesday — Nashville’s seventh loss in the last eight games — by saying he was “realistic” about what lies ahead.

Realistic means that at this point, the Predators need a miracle. More than likely, that miracle is not coming.

The Predators have seven games left and trail Detroit by five points for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. Meanwhile, the Red Wings have nine games left.

Even if Nashville maximizes all of its points by winning all of its remaining games, it will finish with 52 points. Detroit could go 5-4 and still fend off the Predators.

Coming off back-to-back seasons in which the Predators have advanced to the second round of the playoffs, the reality no doubt will prove disappointing if it comes true.

But it also speaks to several factors, one of which is how impressive it is that the organization has qualified for the postseason seven times in the last eight seasons. Only four other NHL franchises — New Jersey, Philadelphia and San Jose — have done that. Rare company, indeed.

What’s interesting is that almost all of those teams also are in danger of failing to qualify for the postseason this year. Defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey began the day in 10th place in its conference, two points out of the final playoff spot. Philadelphia finds itself in a similar predicament to Nashville, five points out. The Flyers have nine games left.

Part of the issue is the nature of the lockout-shortened 48-game season. With fewer games, everything becomes magnified, especially injuries and scheduling.
Nashville seems to have fallen victim to both of those factors. For starters, few if any teams would have survived the number and significance of injuries that have ravaged the Predators.

“It’s just excuses,” captain Shea Weber said after the loss on Tuesday. “We’ve got guys in here that are playing and we have to do a better job. We have to have some sense of production one way or another.”

That’s the right thing for a player to say, but in truth it’s hard for the Predators to win at the key time of the season with so many players in their lineup called up from Milwaukee of the American Hockey League. Talent and experience matter.

Let’s start off with forward Colin Wilson. The 23-year-old appeared poised for a breakthrough season before he suffered an upper-body injury. He has played 25 games and unless something changes, he might not play another game for the rest of the season. His 19 points remain only four off the team lead despite his absence for almost a month.

Right wing Patric Hornqvist, who has led the team in goals in two of the three previous seasons, has missed 18 games — almost 40 percent of the season. He has four goals.

Forward Gabriel Bourque, who remains injured, could end up missing 14 games and has not played in nine days but remains tied for the team lead in goals with 11. 

Top center Mike Fisher, who is accustomed to playing in the difficult games at this point in the season and a veteran of nine playoff seasons, also is currently out. Nashville ranks 28th in scoring — and it’s hard to make the playoffs when that is the case.

Center Paul Gaustad, invaluable on faceoffs, killing penalties and defending other team’s top offensive players, appears that he, like Wilson, might not play another game because of an upper-body injury that has affected him all season. He has played 23 games.

Defenseman Hal Gill, another key penalty-killer, has missed 16 games. The Predators’ penalty-killing unit, by the way, is one of the worst in the league, ranking 27th at 77.7 percent.

A longer season means the chance to ride out such injuries but the schedule afforded no such luxury. The way the schedule worked out — with no travel to Eastern teams, a number of which are closer to Nashville (with a one-hour time change), also did not help the Predators.

A five-game trip to four time zones in March saw the Predators go 1-4 and Trotz said upon coming back that he could not remember the last time he was so tired.

The Predators road record of 5-12-4 ranks them 23rd in the league in points. General manager David Poile hit on this topic last Friday.

“This year has not been good for a lot of reasons,” he said. “What are the other reasons? Is it a 48-game schedule? Is it our very difficult travel to begin the year? Is it players not really being ready to start the season? Is it players not living up to their usual level of play?

“It’s probably a little bit of all those things. The schedule has worked well for some teams it hasn’t worked well for us.”

The final blow – amid so many injuries – appears to have been the trade request of long-time forward Martin Erat. Since sending him to Washington, Nashville has scored four goals in four games and been shut out twice in losing all four in regulation.

While Erat was having one of his worst seasons as a pro, he remained a top-line talent on a team struggling to find offense and which has had to go to the waiver wire and minors to try and find offense – without much success. Over those last four games, the Predators have gotten goals from their forwards but twice in a span of 12 periods.

Despite the recent losses, Nashville has played hard and, at times, played very well, but the inability to score has proved its undoing.

Two games remaining against Detroit offer the Predators something of a lifeline to make the playoffs. Wins in regulation could provide a glimmer of hope for a miraculous finish.

Alas, almost no margin for error remains.