For the Nashville Predators, it’s about fun and tuning up for what they hope will be a long playoff run.
Saturday night’s regular-season finale in Bridgestone Arena can make the difference between a potential first-round series with two-time Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh for Columbus (45-29-7) or maybe falling all the way to a wild card and a matchup with a division champion.
As for Nashville (52-18-11), it took care of its remaining regular-season business in one fell swoop Thursday night. Shortly after clinching the Central Division title and the Western Conference’s top seed with a 4-3 win in Washington, the Predators watched the end of Boston’s 3-2 loss in Florida on locker room TVs.
That assured Nashville of the league’s top regular-season record, which means it will have home-ice advantage for any playoff series. Or to put it another way, if it carries its home games, it will hoist the Cup for the first time in franchise history.
“All year we’ve talked about doing the best we can and it’s always been just about home ice,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. “The guys did an incredible job of staying really focused and fairly consistent with their game, and because of it, we sit where we sit.”
Which means Nashville has earned the right to play this game any way it sees fit. It can play to win, it can play some of its mainstays to keep them sharp, or it can rest everyone and basically call up its AHL affiliate from Milwaukee for the night.
Laviolette is tight-lipped under any circumstance, and with the playoffs looming, doubly so. Don’t expect any big pronouncements concerning a lineup until Saturday’s morning skate, if then, but it wouldn’t be surprising if multiple regulars got the “maintenance night” treatment they’ve received during the last month.
“It’s big for the organization,” said right winger Craig Smith, who scored two goals Thursday night. “A lot of guys have put in a lot of hard work and a lot of time to produce a season like that. We’re having fun with each other and holding each other accountable to get out there and play for each other, so it’s great.”
While the Predators can treat this game however they desire, the Blue Jackets are likely chasing the two points. Even though they’ll open the Eastern Conference playoffs on the road, they’re at least in there, clinching despite Thursday night’s 5-4 overtime loss to Pittsburgh.
This will be the first time that Columbus has made consecutive playoff appearances.
“We were the youngest team in the league most of the year,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. “If you want to continue to build your organization and find your way and be that team that’s going to be there all the time, you have to experience it. You can’t be in one year, lose in five games and then take two years to be back in it.”
Nashville is looking for a sweep in the season series. It posted a 3-1 win on Nov. 7 in Columbus, scoring two goals in the last five minutes.