Another season, another photo-finish playoff race that the Nashville Predators are a part of.
The Western Conference playoff bubble seems to be a magnet that the Preds gravitate to every year at this time. No matter how they start the season, Barry Trotz and company seem to always find themselves in the middle of a frenetic late-season sprint to the finish line.
“We’ve been in this position the last three years,” Trotz said. “One year we missed it, the other two we made it. We’re sort of in the same position. You just have to continue to win games.”
In 2008, when no one expected Trotz’s gang to sniff the playoffs, they fought through late-season inconsistencies and snuck in as the 8-seed. A year later, after an underwhelming first half, a successful February and March weren’t enough to crack the West’s top eight. Last season they were able to stay in playoff positioning most of the year, but didn’t clinch a playoff spot until Game 80.
Through Tuesday’s action, they sit in 9th place in the conference and one point behind eighth-seeded Calgary, whom the Preds have two games in hand on.
“I think it just makes us stronger,” Martin Erat said of being on the playoff bubble annually. “That’s what you play hockey for – you know, playing those tight games where every point means something.”
Two advantages they have in these final weeks are A) they have two games in hand on a Calgary team that will do more scoreboard-watching than actual playing, and B) the Preds will close out the season mostly on home-ice. 9 of the team’s final 12 games will be played at home, which is viewed as an advantage on the other competitors in this tight race.
However, the Preds have failed to play with consistency at home this season, boasting a 17-8-7 record. The team knows just how important it’s going to be to make Bridgestone Arena a distinct home-ice advantage down the stretch.
“It’s always important,” Erat said. “It doesn’t matter how you’re playing, the home games are always important. If you can get those points on home-ice, it makes it easier on the road.”
“I think everyone realizes there’s no one game that we can’t win at home,” Pekka Rinne said. “Every time we play at home, we try to make it as tough as possible for the opponent. (We) just need to build up the confidence and establish the home building as a good place for us and a tough place for other teams.”
Rinne has been the team’s catalyst most of the season, playing his way into the Vezina and even Hart Trophy conversations. This is the third straight year where he has put the team on his back down the stretch. Rinne admitted that he feels more comfortable this time around compared to the previous two springs.
“Last two years it’s been a really exciting time,” Rinne said. “But it helps, just the fact that I’ve played more games, have a little more experience and know what to expect. I’m sure that’s an advantage for us as a team.”
While the team itself is experienced in playoff races like this, Trotz is having to rely on youngsters to fill key roles. Jonathon Blum, 22, and Blake Geoffrion, 23, were both called up in recent weeks and have fit in nicely in Trotz’s system.
A handful of injuries that have depleted a deep team are forcing the Preds to go with these youngsters. Steve Sullivan (groin) and Marcel Goc (shoulder) are done for the regular season. There are doubts that Matthew Lombardi and Bouillon (concussion) will be able to return, either. The same goes for Cal O’Reilly (leg).
“We can’t take any more injuries to key guys,” Trotz said. “We’re out of key guys to get injured right now. We don’t have anyone on the horizon coming back, so we can’t lose any more.”
However, the Preds aren’t making any excuses. In past years when they’ve been in the same situation, key injuries haven’t kept them from making the playoffs. They may have had an impact once they got in, but it hasn’t kept them from staying in the top eight.
There are reasons to believe that this Nashville team will fall short. The current top line of David Legwand, Joel Ward and Erat (though they have played well together) is below average compared to other top units on teams that they are battling with; the injuries could prove to be too much; and though 75% of their remaining games are at home, most are against playoff teams.
With that being said, there are reasons for optimism. It’s always helpful to have more home than road games left; they know what it takes to prevail in a tight race on the bubble; and Rinne has been sensational all year long.
Nashville’s playoff fate will be decided by their own doing. If they win the games they should, take advantage of their home games and avoid the injury bug from here on out, the Preds’ chances of getting to their sixth postseason will greatly improve.
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