Needing every point they can get the rest of the way, the Nashville Predators appear to have the closest thing to a guaranteed two points heading into Bridgestone Arena on Thursday night.
They are hosting the Colorado Avalanche, who at 16-39-3 are easily the NHL’s worst team, and one they have already beaten four times this season, including 4-3 on Dec. 6 in Nashville.
With nothing to play for except the accomplishment of individual goals and the possibility of making moves to enhance their future, Colorado is in that place few teams ever want to inhabit.
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But it would be a fatal mistake for the Predators to overlook them, considering they start the evening just a point ahead of the Calgary Flames for the first wild card spot in the Western Conference and only two points in behind the St. Louis Blues for third in the Central Division.
And as four of the last five games have shown, there’s no guarantee Nashville is going to take care of business early. It has fallen behind by three goals against the Florida Panthers, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild and Calgary. Amazingly, it managed three points out of that scenario, rallying to dump the Stars 5-3 on Feb. 12 and falling 6-5 in overtime Tuesday night to the Flames.
Still, it might benefit this team to display a bit of initiative early in games and not have to fight from behind repeatedly.
“It’s just the way it goes sometimes,” captain Mike Fisher said. “We got behind. We found a way to get back in it; we never feel like we are out of a game ever. That’s a good sign and hopefully something we won’t have to do as much down the stretch.”
Another concern for the Predators is the recent slump of goalie Pekka Rinne, who’s been pulled twice in his last four starts. Defensive breakdowns and puck luck haunted Rinne on Tuesday as he allowed four goals on just 13 shots. His save percentage in February is a measly .891.
“Nothing bounced our way, and every time something broke down, it wound up in the back of the net,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said about yanking Rinne. “It wasn’t about Pekka at that point. It was about changing the game and the momentum.”
It’s not known if Rinne or Juuse Saros, who relieved Rinne and gave the Predators a chance to win with some big saves that sparked their rally from a 4-1 deficit against Calgary, will go between the pipes Thursday.
Either way, it seems like a favorable matchup against a Colorado team that has scored just 114 goals — 25 fewer than any other team. Its 2-1 loss against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday was emblematic of its season. The Avs were outshot 32-25 and failed to bury a spate of good chances against Peter Budaj in the third period, hitting two posts and a crossbar.
“We just weren’t sharp enough around the net and it ended up costing us,” Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “I hit one crossbar and one post and one yawning cage where it just hopped over.”