They finished the regular season 5-7-0. And, no, “they” are not the Nashville Predators.
By way of a Minnesota Wild loss on Saturday afternoon, the Chicago Blackhawks (48-28-6) locked up third place in the Central Division and will take on the Predators in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. According to Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette on the pre-game show, the series will start on Wednesday night in Music City.
The Predators aren’t exactly firing on all cylinders going in. Yes, they finished second in the toughest division in hockey and yes, they were the first team in the entire league to hit 40 wins and yes, they even have a few players in consideration for awards. But, even with all of those impressive things, they are essentially limping into the playoffs.
Fans and media alike frequently point to mid-February as to when the wheels started coming off. Using February 19 as the turning point, between then and the end of the regular season, the Preds finished the year on a 9-14-2 run. Prior to that February 19 date? A league-leading 38-11-8.
But Laviolette’s been through this before. Two and a half months before winning the Stanley Cup as the bench boss of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, his team sputtered into the playoffs, finishing 1-2-2. Heck, they even got blasted by the Montreal Canadiens 6-1 in their first playoff game. In short, things didn’t look too promising for the Hurricanes. But Carolina would go onto beat the Habs in six, the New Jersey Devils in five, the Buffalo Sabres in seven and the Edmonton Oilers in seven en route to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
He went through this in 2010 as well. Before leading the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final, Laviolette’s club went 5-8-2 in their final 15 regular season contests. But, once the post season started, the Flyers disposed of New Jersey in five, the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven and Montreal in five before losing to the Blackhawks in game six of the Final.
Since there’s a pattern here, can the Predators make a similar run? They certainly have the talent to do so. Two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne, three-time Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber, leading scorer among Predators defenseman Roman Josi, Calder Trophy candidate Filip Forsberg and clutch sniper James Neal among others. As good as those players are, Nashville’s success will be determined by its secondary scoring.
Colin Wilson finished the 2014-15 season with a career year. Problem is, Wilson achieved that career year all the way back on February 17. Since then, he’s tallied just four points in 24 games. So while Wilson did perform well against the Blackhawks this season (a point-per-game average), thanks to a quirk in the schedule, the season series between the two was over in December, well before Nashville’s – and Wilson’s – struggles.
Mike Ribeiro is another player who seemed to trail off down the stretch. His 14 points in the final 25 games was solid but a far cry from the 48 he put up in the 57 prior to February 19.
And then there’s Mike Santorelli who (basically) cost the Predators a top prospect in Brendan Leipsic in order to acquire him from the Toronto Maple Leafs. At the time of the trade, he was Toronto’s sixth best scorer but, since his arrival on February 21, he’s amassed just four points in 22 games, looking a lot like the player the Panthers put on waivers back in 2013.
The bottom line is Nashville needs its second and third lines to get going like they were in the first four months of the regular season. If that happens, the Blackhawks can’t just focus on the top line of Forsberg, Ribeiro and Neal. All of a sudden, three lines become be a threat and that creates a more balanced attack for a struggling Predators squad who could use some confidence and consistency right about now.
So while there are other questions such as “Will Chicago’s injured superstar Patrick Kane return?” and “Can Rinne return to form and shut down a team that boasts names like Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad?” the true question for Nashville seems to be “Can they get their secondary scoring back?” If so, it’s the Predators’ series to lose. If not, it’s anybody’s series.
The official schedule is below.
GAME 1 – Wednesday, April 15 @ 7:30pm in Nashville
GAME 2 – Friday, April 17 @ 8:30pm in Nashville
GAME 3 – Sunday, April 19 @ 2:00pm in Chicago
GAME 4 – Tuesday, April 21 @ 8:30pm in Chicago
GAME 5 – Thursday, April 23 @ TBD in Nashville*
GAME 6 – Saturday, April 25 @ TBD in Chicago*
GAME 7 – Monday, April 27 @ TBD in Nashville*
* – if necessary