TORONTO — The Nashville Predators came into the Air Canada Centre on a roll. Having won their last three games by an 11–2 margin, they were looking like the high-flying, offense-first team tabbed the sexy pick to come out of the Western Conference.
Despite the Predators outshooting the Leafs 34–32 and dominating the possession with an even-strength 54.17% Corsi Percentage, they were unable to build on the momentum of a three-game winning streak and fell 6–2 on Tuesday. James Van Riemsdyk registered his first hat trick for the Maple Leafs and the Leafs also got goals from Mitch Marner, Leo Komarov and William Nylander, who broke his nine-game goal-less drought.
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Their inability to beat a young Maple Leafs team speaks to the problem the Predators are experiencing this season: they’re largely playing well but just not getting the winning results on paper.
“I feel any loss is frustrating,” Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “Sometimes you lose for reasons. I thought at times we were alright tonight and other times we weren’t. We’ve just got to get more consistent.”
The game itself was consistent: A fluid first period, which is to be expected given the puck-moving ability of the Leafs’ forwards and Predators’ defensemen, continued throughout the game and into the third period where it took nearly six minutes for the first whistle to be blown.
Though the Maple Leafs took an early lead, the Predators fought their way back at the end of the first when James Neal evaded two Maple Leafs for a tap-in goal. And when the Maple Leafs pulled ahead 3–1, Viktor Arvidsson, one of if not the best Predators player scored on a breakaway less than four minutes from the 2nd intermission. For all their ability to drive the play tonight, their attempts to get back into the game were too little too late. A lot could be taken away from the Predators’ play, sure, just not two points. Now at 6-6-3 and two points behind the Wild in perhaps the NHL’s most difficult division, these are games they need.
“Obviously we know who we’re matched up against in our division: teams who have had a lot of success in recent years,” Predators forward Ryan Johansen said. “It makes you always check the standings and it makes every game so important, which it is for every team. We know how big this time of year is to not fall behind and not just stay in the middle. You want to be one of the top teams because it’s a long year. You just have to try and stay as consistent as possible.”
Late last week some in the SI NHL department were discussing what was wrong with the Predators, a team that entered the season with such high expectations. My answer all salacious, was simple: nothing. Their even-strength scoring chances for % is still one of the best in the league. The bounces just haven’t gone their way yet.
“For the most part our game was alright but you’ve got to score to win and they did just that,” Ellis said.
“They got the fast start,” he added, speaking to the struggles that the Predators have had on the road this season. “That’s a big part of being at home—they come out and they jump on that lead. We had chances to get back in it but the bounces didn’t go our way tonight.”
The problem with the issues the Predators are facing is there’s no real solution. What adjustments would you make when your team outshoots the opponent, drives play but doesn’t get the win? They could be a victim of being creatures of comfort. Their three-game win streak came at home where they are 5-1-1. But that momentum quickly disappears when they take things to the road. They’re now 1-5-2 away from Bridgestone Arena.
But exercising patience as that 20-game barometer inches closer and the playoff picture ever so slowly comes into view, is easier said than done.
“We’ve struggled a little bit on the road so far this season,” Johansen said. “There was a lot of talk before the game about that and trying to get back on the right foot. Obviously we didn’t tonight. That part of the game is frustrating right now. We’d like to get going on the road.”
For now, the Predators may simply have to play the waiting game. The questions regarding their record will likely persist given the amount of talent on their roster. But they’re getting the chances and with that aforementioned talent, it’s logical to assume those goals and wins will eventually come.
Just how long they can wait and stick to what they’re doing will likely become the biggest question of them all.