The Nashville Predators finished the season with 104 points, good for second in the Central Division and cementing their first round match up against the hated Chicago Blackhawks.
In this preview, I will focus on the Predators, because frankly, I couldn't give a rat's ass about the Blackhawks. Rather than focus on specific metrics, let's look at the areas that will be essential for the Predators to secure a first round victory.
After tearing up the League through the end of February, the Predators stumbled to the finish line in March and April. Early in the season, falling behind in a game was no problem for the Predators, as they had the moxie and drive to overcome a deficit and win games. In March, when the Predators endured their first losing skid, the body language and demeanor of this team changed noticeably. Fall behind by a goal and there was a high probability this team was not going to win a game. Fall behind by two goals and this team was doomed.
The Predators also showed a disturbing trend of being unable to hold a lead in the last quarter of the season. This is, in my view, a matter of mental focus. Sure, there will be games where you get a bad bounce and blow a lead, but the consistency with which this team squandered leads causes me to believe they lack a killer instinct.
In the playoffs, there is going to be adversity in every round. How the Predators handle that adversity will go a long way to determining how far they go in the playoffs.
Frankly, the Predators need something good to happen for them and to build on that to get their confidence going.
Look for how the Predators play in the opening two games at home to see if they have their swagger back or if they are going to roll over. If the Predators fail to show intensity and push back when things aren't going well, this will be a short series.
To a man, the Predators players have spoken about hitting a playoff gear. Every team that succeeds in the playoffs elevates their game and lays it on the line to win.
The biggest question for the Predators is can they find another gear and elevate their play in the post season.
The Predators did not respond well in the final quarter of the season when they faced teams that were scrambling and desperate to secure playoff positions.
From March through the end of the season, the Predators had 19 games. They went 6-13 (including OT and shootout losses) during a stretch of the season where they met opponents that were already in playoff mode as they were trying to secure a playoff position.
Not exactly awe inspiring.
Can they turn it on now?
My hope is that they can, but if their level of play does not pick up and match that of the Blackhawks, then this will be a short and disappointing series.
Defensive breakdowns have plagued the team in the last quarter of the season. The inability to locate forwards in the slot or prime scoring areas have resulted more often than not with the puck in the back of our net. This has been especially true of the second and third D pairings.
Playing a team that has the ability to be explosive and can roll 4 lines that means that the Predators D pairings are going to have to bring their A game. While Weber and Josi will chew up minutes, there is going to be a need for better lay out of Mattias Ekholm, Seth Jones, Ryan Ellis, and Anton Volchenkov/Victor Bartley. They are going to have their hands full controlling the Hawks forwards and will need to be positionally sound to give the Predators a chance to win this series.
There is no doubt the Predators are going to need some secondary scoring, especially from their third line. This is where the Predators need to have Colin Wilson get his game going. Wilson ended the season going 22 games without a goal, and it sure would be good to see him find the net again. The Predators third line could be the difference in this series if they can generate some goals and put some pressure on the Hawks D.
Elite, or just good?
There is no doubt that this team will ride Pekka Rinne as far as he can carry them. Part of the reason for the Predators struggles from the start of March through the end of the season was that Rinne struggled in net. Through the end of February, Rinne sported a .936 save percentage. From March through the end of the season, Rinne's save percentage was .901.
For the Predators to have a chance in this series, Rinne is going to have to return to elite form. if he is just good, then the Predators will struggle to come out of the first round.
(Not so) Special teams
The Predators power play is 25th in the League, clicking at 16.2%, while the penalty kill is 18th at 80.8%. Mediocre at best, and I don't think the Predators will improve in the post season. It is going to be critical for the team to stay out of the box and (please, please, PLEASE) convert when they have an opportunity on the power play.
The Predators have a new season ahead of them. How they respond in these critical areas will determine how long this new season lasts.