Torrid Predators host Blackhawks, on pace for best season
As they start the unofficial second half of the season Tuesday night against the Chicago Blackhawks in Bridgestone Arena, the Nashville Predators boast a 29-11-7 record. They’re on pace for the best season in franchise history and have lost just four times in regulation at home.
Yet they aren’t even in first place in the Central Division, thanks to Winnipeg’s emergence. In fact, one bad week will bring them into the wild-card race. Simply put, there is no margin for error, even for an elite team like Nashville.
“It’s crazy,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. “You look at the standings and if you have a bad week, you could be out of the playoffs. The Central Division is certainly tight, just in regard to the cluster of teams and a certain amount of points percentage.”
Article continues below ...
Nashville appears on paper to hold the cards in terms of winning the division. It has three games in hand on Winnipeg and Dallas, plus four on St. Louis, and the Predators have flashed superior depth throughout the season.
Case in point: Their 6-0-2 stretch in the last eight games, all without left winger Filip Forsberg, tied for the team lead in goals with 15. No. 1 center Ryan Johansen has developed a mysterious allergy to shooting the puck with only five markers in 44 games on a mere 66 shots, yet Nashville continues to win.
The major reason is an airtight defense. The Predators have allowed the second-fewest goals in the league despite being outshot on average. They suppress quality scoring chances, rarely allowing goalies Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros to get screened.
Defenseman P.K. Subban, who was inconsistent at times last season due to injuries, is playing at a Norris Trophy level this season. Not only does he lead the team in scoring with 12 goals and 25 assists in 47 games, Subban is also playing some of the best defense of his career.
One sequence from Sunday’s All-Star Game, in which he used positioning and quickness to take Johnny Gaudreau out of a play on which it appeared he might have a Grade A chance, symbolized Subban’s season perfectly.
“It was nice to get into a game situation, especially going into this week,” Subban said of the weekend in Tampa. “We have some big games.”
This is also big for Chicago (23-19-7), which is in an unfamiliar position — last place in the division. The Blackhawks are four points out of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, reflecting a team going through a transition phase.
Chicago did play one of its best games of the season just before the All-Star break, routing Detroit 5-1 Thursday night in the Motor City behind a hat trick from rookie Alex DeBrincat. It was a breakout performance for a team that struggled for offense in prior games.
“We knew goals were coming,” said forward Anthony Duclair. “It was just a matter of time.”
Goals might not come as easily against Rinne (24-8-3, 2.35, .927), who in his last seven games against the Blackhawks has allowed just eight markers. That includes last April’s 4-0 sweep in the conference quarterfinals that started Nashville’s unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Anton Forsberg (4-7-3, 3.00, .910) or Jeff Glass (3-3-2, 3.15, .910) could start in net for the Blackhawks.