The Nashville Predators tour Western Canada this week in what they believe is the make-or-break moment in their surprising season.
Games Tuesday in Edmonton, Thursday in Vancouver and Friday at Calgary – capped by a Sunday matinee at Detroit – will go a long way in determining whether the plucky Preds stay in the playoff hunt.
“This road trip is huge for us,” Nashville goalie Dan Ellis told The Canadian Press on Monday. “You see other teams are really pushing for that final playoff spot, teams behind us are catching up, teams ahead of us are moving further ahead.
“One or two losses really makes you slip pretty far down the standings and it’s just something we can’t afford right now.”
The Preds are tied with Vancouver and Colorado at 74 points with the final two playoff spots in the West at stake.
“If we can get out of this trip with a decent record, then I think we stand a good chance of getting in,” said Nashville head coach Barry Trotz.
Rewind the season 66 games before the puck was dropped and one would hard-pressed to believe the depleted Predators would be tied for the last playoff spot in the West with one month to go in the regular season.
When Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen and Tomas Vokoun left town last summer, the pundits were quick to predict a spring with no playoff hockey in Nashville.
“Going into the season, everybody thought that there would be no way we would recover from all the losses and the situation with our hockey team (sale) and all that,” said Trotz. “I think our team took a lot of personal pride in terms of trying to prove people wrong and show we’re still a pretty good hockey team.”
Trotz points to a young defence corps – Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis, Ville Koistinen, Shea Weber and Greg Zanon – really stepping up along with veterans Marek Zidlicky and Greg De Vries.
The coach also talked about other players moving up into new roles, starting with Jason Arnott as captain. The big names may be gone, but the Predators arguably have never been more of a team in the truest meaning.
“This team has been very resilient,” said Trotz. “They’ve been able to adapt to change, they’ve been able to face adversity and deal with skepticism from people. I give this group a lot of credit.”
The players have fed off the negative pre-season prognostications.
“It definitely is a motivating factor,” said Ellis. “Any time someone writes you off, you always want to prove them wrong. It’s something that our coaches remind us of often, that we were picked to not make the playoffs by pretty much everybody because we lost all that high-end talent.
“But I think they feel while they lost some offence they gained some character and maybe a little more grit,” added Ellis. “I think we’ve shown we can beat any team in the league, it’s just a matter of doing it on consistent basis.”
On Saturday night, the Preds went into Dallas against one of the NHL’s powerhouses and beat the Stars 3-1 in the second game of their six-stop road trip.
“Big win in Dallas,” said Trotz. “They’re arguably the hottest team right now and maybe the favourite in a lot of eyes. So I think it’s a good confidence-booster heading up north.”
First up this week are the Oilers, 13th in the West but winners of four straight.
“Even though they’re a little lower in the standings, Edmonton has been playing great hockey of late,” said Ellis. “Mathieu Garon has been really strong, their young guys have really been fuelling their fire and fuelling their offence.”