Two years ago, the Nashville Predators trudged to the playoffs with a noticeable limp, earning just two out of a potential 12 points in their last six games, and suffering a six-game regulation losing streak in February.
The 2016-17 Predators have done everything they can to avoid that fate this time around, while playoff teams like the Minnesota Wild and San Jose Sharks stumble to the finish.
“We’ve been in both positions,” defenseman Ryan Ellis said after practice on Sunday. “Right now, we seem to be clicking at a pretty decent clip here. A couple of years ago, we were in the same spot as them [Minnesota and San Jose], losing five in a row. It’s frustrating. In yesterday’s game, I think you saw some of that frustration.”
Despite some highs and lows, the Predators have been quite the consistent team this season. They haven’t gone more than two games without earning a point in the standings since October 15-21. While they did suffer a four-game losing streak this March, two of those losses came in overtime.
With less than 10 games to go in the regular season, and just a point separating them from the St. Louis Blues and Calgary Flames in the standings, the Predators can feel the momentum building, while simultaneously recognizing how important each and every point is.
“I think we’re playing with a lot of speed and passion,” defenseman Anthony Bitetto said. “All of the pieces are kind of coming together. Every night is a big night, and we’re kind of rising to those occasions. It’s the right time of the year to get hot. We can always get better, I think, and I think the next couple of games down the stretch are going to be huge for us as a team.”
The Predators are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games. Meanwhile, two of their potential first-round playoff opponents are floundering. The Wild are 2-7-1 in their last 10 games, and after losing 7-2 in Nashville on Saturday night, the Sharks have lost six in a row. The frustration plaguing many Western Conference playoff teams has not found its way to Nashville.
At the same time, the Predators will face three Eastern Conference teams this week fighting just to get into the playoffs, starting with the New York Islanders on Monday. They currently sit two points behind the Boston Bruins, Nashville’s opponent on Tuesday, for the last wild card spot. Thursday’s opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs, sit in third in the Atlantic Division, but just one point ahead of the Bruins and three points ahead of the Islanders.
“We’ve got to keep focus on the work that we’ve got to do,” head coach Peter Laviolette said. “We can’t worry about what’s going on in the league, we’ve got to keep trying to get better with what we’re doing. I think going out on the road here, we’re going to be facing two really hungry hockey teams fighting for their playoff lives. We know it’s going to be difficult, so we just need to focus on the work that we have.”
Laviolette also said his team should be up for, and thankful for, the challenge of facing “do or die” matchups this week.
“It’s not such a bad thing because it forces our game to be on point,” he said. “Otherwise, we won’t like the results. I think all of that helps prepare you for the playoffs.”
As far as desperation goes, Bitetto doesn’t see much of a difference between the Predators and their opponents in the Eastern Conference.
“We’re in the same situation,” he said. “We need points too. I think it’s preparing us for playoff rounds. We know how hard it is, and we want to keep moving up the standings as quickly and as fast as possible. I think we’re ready for those challenges and it’s a good East group that we’re playing, so I think it’s going to be huge for us.”
As the regular season winds down, the Predators should adjust to playing desperate teams. All but two of Nashville’s remaining opponents are currently in a playoff position, and only the Wild, who come to Nashville on April 1st, have actually clinched a playoff berth.
With that many playoff-caliber teams in such a short span, it could be a golden opportunity for the Predators to put themselves in the best position to win in the playoffs.
“This time of year, winning lots of games, you’ve got to be doing a lot of good things,” said Ryan Johansen. “I think we’ve still got another step where, if we’re going to be a dangerous team in the playoffs, we’ve still got to take another step here, and we’re starting to get that confidence and swagger as a group where I feel like we’re getting close to that level.”