In a grueling stretch of games leading up to the combination All-Star break and bye week, the Predators stumbled as they traversed the North American continent playing eight games in 17 days spanning all four time zones.
With just two of those eight games played at home, the road-weary Predators needed that time off to rest and recharge. Despite going 2-5-1, the Predators have to feel good about where they are, both with how they are playing and being within striking distance of a playoff berth.
With 31 games standing between the Predators and the end of the regular season, there are 62 points up for grabs for a team that earned 54 points in their first 51 games. Last season, the Winnipeg Jets earned the Western Conference’s second and final wild card berth with 95 points, so if the Predators hope to keep their playoff absence streak at one, they are going to need to pick up the pace. It’s something they say is well within their reach.
“We should feel good,” Predators head coach Andrew Brunette says. “We’re knocking on the door. There’s hockey left, lots of hockey left.”
Unless some other teams go on really hot or really cold streaks, the Predators are likely battling with the Los Angeles Kings, Seattle Kraken and St. Louis Blues for the two available wild card spots. And while wins and losses are important, gaining and holding ground against those teams is especially critical. In hockey vernacular, those games are known as four-point games.
With a new general manager, a new coach and several new players, this season was going to be one of transition in Nashville. Consensus expectations from the outside for the Predators may have been low, but the players believe in each other and feel like there is still more for them to give.
“I think we’re growing still,” captain Roman Josi says. “I think our game is getting better. We knew there was going to be some growing pains this year. I feel like we’re a hardworking group.”
After the Predators went into sell mode last season combined with a rash of injuries to several top players, expectations for a playoff appearance weren’t high, but the young players who were given an opportunity held them in the playoff race until the last weekend of the season.
New general manager Barry Trotz hasn’t gone into sell mode yet, and the team hasn’t experienced a tremendous number of injuries this season. As the team continues to evolve, the players feel good about their chances.
“We’re finding our game,” Filip Forsberg says. “If somebody would have told me we’d have been in this spot before the season I probably would have liked to play for it because I like the talent that we have. At the same time, we’re still in the mix. We’re still growing. I think we’re learning a lot. Hopefully our best hockey is still to be played.”
Forsberg was the one Predator selected to participate in All-Star weekend. While he did not get as much time off as his teammates, he has shown the ability to absorb big minutes. Forsberg averages just over 19 minutes per game, one fewer than linemate Ryan O’Reilly, who sits right at 20 minutes per game.
“I think for us, some of the older guys, this little break will energize them,” Brunette says. “I’ve been very demanding on them. They’re kind of hitting the wall here a little bit, so I think get a nice little break, refresh.”
Brunette then named some of the younger players, namely Cody Glass, Philip Tomasino and Tommy Novak, who showed signs of breaking out before the break, as players he needed to continue to contribute if the team has any chance of making the playoffs. Those players, as well as Luke Evangelista were the ones called upon to play bigger roles last season and they rose to that challenge.
As much as the Predators need contributions up front, taking care of their own end will be of equal importance. Juuse Saros’ numbers have stabilized somewhat recently. He will need to continue that upward trend to give the team a fighting chance at the playoffs.
“I’m excited for the last 30,” Brunette says. “We put ourselves in a good position. It’s going to be fun.”