When The Hockey News released its Playoff Preview issue last season, there was an entire spread dedicated to the Nashville Predators and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Its purpose was a preview of the Stanley Cup final. The problem, of course, is that neither team made it to the final round of the post-season. The Predators were ousted by the Winnipeg Jets in the second round, while the Lightning falling flat in Game 7 against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.
But what if we were to do that spread all over again this season and pit the top contenders from each conference in a head-to-head? Well, make no mistake that the Lightning would remain. The Predators, however? Not so much.
What vaulted Nashville into top spot among our perceived frontrunners last season was their standing in the Western Conference and the entire NHL. When last campaign closed, the Predators were alone in first-place in their conference, three points clear of the second-best Winnipeg Jets. Even Tampa Bay, a group that has been almost historically dominant this season, were four points back of Nashville, who stood atop the league as last season’s Presidents’ Trophy recipients with a league-best 117 points.
This season, however, the Predators are primed to fall well short of last season’s regular season performance. With eight games remaining, Nashville finds itself second in the Central Division, fourth in the Western Conference and ninth in the NHL, its 89-point total similar not to the league’s best but some expected post-season also-rans such as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes. And for that reason, there are few who would consider the Predators a top-tier contender despite their run to the Stanley Cup final a mere two seasons back.
In no way does that mean we should go overlooking Nashville, though.
Winners of three straight and looking for a fourth victory in a row Thursday night in Pittsburgh, it's evident that there are still a lot of ways in which this Predators team can hurt an opponent, and that starts with the back end. Say what you will for the down year the team as a whole is having, but is there any other blueline with which you’d rather enter post-season battle? Not only is Nashville able to trot out a better stable of top-four rearguards than any other team, but the group has seemingly only gotten better. Roman Josi is a perennial Norris Trophy contender, as is (a healthy) P.K. Subban. But also meriting inclusion in top defenseman conversations? Mattias Ekholm, who has improved each and every season of his career. When Ryan Ellis is the fourth defenseman earning mention, you know you’ve got in place a rock-solid top four.
It's not just depth on the blueline, either. Offensively, Nashville is arguably deeper than it has ever been. With the inclusion of deadline acquisition Wayne Simmonds, who is fresh off of registering his first goal since arriving, the Predators are on pace to feature a dozen players with 30 or more points. That includes high-end offensive talents Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson, as well as secondary scorers Craig Smith, Nick Bonino, Colton Sissons and pre-deadline pickup Mikael Granlund. In a seven-game series, Nashville could feast on the subpar goaltending that other top teams in the conference have received.
The Predators are unmistakably solid in goal, as well. Among the 36 goaltenders with at least 1,500 minutes played at 5-on-5 this season, Pekka Rinne ranks 10th with a .929 save percentage, and his all-strengths .915 SP ranks 12th of the 31 netminders with at least 2,000 minutes in the crease. The only other presently playoff-bound Western Conference goaltender with a higher SP at 5-on-5 is Dallas Stars starter Ben Bishop, while he and the Arizona Coyotes’ Darcy Kuemper rank higher than Rinne at all strengths.
What helps the Predators, as well, is their ability to control play. At five-a-side, Nashville ranks seventh in Corsi percentage (52.5), ninth in shots percentage (52.5) and 13th in scoring chances percentage (51.4) with the seventh-best goals percentage (54.3) in the league. That stacks up favorably against the majority of the Western Conference, though there are others – the San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames and Vegas Golden Knights, primarily – who are likewise skilled in the possession game. If anything, though, the Predators have shown the ability to hang with those teams in that regard.
None of this is to say the Predators are without faults. There are indeed reasons it might not work out for the Predators. Against the Sharks, Flames, Jets and Knights – the four top teams in the conference – Nashville has a 5-7 record, minus-seven goal differential and have allowed upwards of four goals against per game. Rinne has also had his share of playoff woes, including last season’s gaffes against the Jets. He has a career .915 SP in the post-season and he’s posted a sub-.910 SP in three of his five runs that have exceeded 10 games. There’s also the matter of some tough seasons for important talents, such as Kyle Turris, who coach Peter Laviolette has gone so far as to bench recently.
But there is also an experience factor. The Predators have been tested, and they know what it takes to win, they know what does and doesn’t work when the games matter most.
Think of it like that conversation Jerry and Elaine once had on Seinfeld in reference to ending a relationship. “Breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine. You can’t do it in one push. You gotta rock it back and forth a few times and then it goes over.” Maybe it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but the metaphor – trying at something a few times before getting the job done – applies to winning the Stanley Cup. The Pittsburgh Penguins needed their loss to the Detroit Red Wings before they could reach the summit. The Chicago Blackhawks likewise had to suffer defeat before they could get to the top. The Capitals needed how many tries before they finally won it all? It could be that that is exactly what the past few seasons have been in Nashville, the proverbial rocking of the Coke machine.
And if all goes right, there’s no reason this can’t be the season the Predators finally knock the darn thing over.