Tonight, the Nashville Predators have an opportunity to do something for the second time this season - win five straight games. Previously against the San Jose Sharks, the Preds played not their best, but perhaps the best game of the year, when Colin Wilson and Sergei Kostitsyn scored 44 seconds apart in the 3rd period to win the game 3-2. The first two frames, though, were an illustration of Nashville's trademark inconsistency and a harbinger of sorts of the five game skid awaiting.
With more injuries than seemingly ever before, sure, you could justify the varying levels of play, but the facts are simply this - with or without Martin Erat, Steve Sullivan, Matthew Lombardi, Marcel Goc, Pekka Rinne, Ryan Suter, Jordin Tootoo, and Cal O`Reilly all at various points this year, the Predators have rather quietly racked up 48 points in 40 games, putting them in 4th place in the Western Conference as I write this. Injuries, then, are a poor excuse for a team like Nashville, who rely on their depth and ability to outwork the opponent instead of a large measure of skill. Whether the mainstream media likes it or not, this is a good hockey team. But it is also flawed.
The flaws, of course, are familiar to most of you - a poor power play, no true goal scorer, it goes on. What you may not realize, though, is that these can be overcome. Its true, the San Jose Sharks have an embarrassment of riches up front, with Olympians Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Joe Pavelski; Calder Trophy frontrunner Logan Couture, and perhaps the NHL's most improved player in Ryane Clowe.
Despite this, the Predators can run the Sharks right out of their own building if they stay true to Barry Trotz's game plan - never stop moving your feet, work hard, put pucks on and go to the net. It isn't pretty, but it wins hockey games even against the most potent of opponents. Thus far on this winning streak, Nashville's done so, and brilliantly - its resulted in an aggregate score line of 17-5 in five games.
As long as Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Pekka Rinne are around, the Preds will never have too much trouble keeping the puck out of their own net (they currently have the league's 3rd best defense, behind Boston and Pittsburgh). Nashville doesn't have many advantages over the rest of the NHL, but this is one, and failing to take advantage of it is...not good. The Sharks are a team that the Preds can impose their will upon - lots of skill, but not as much grit and willingness to go to battle in the trenches. To be blunt, they tend to give up easily. Nashville does not.
The Nashville Predators should expect to make the playoffs as currently constructed. They should not, however, expect to make any noise if they keep playing this maddening game of two steps forward, two steps back. A dominating performance tonight, regardless of next week's results, against an important Western Conference rival to cap off a successful road trip would go a long way to convincing me this team has what it takes to win postseason games.
Sharks blog Fear the Fin anguishes over the fact that the fans on the Predators' official site voted December 15th's win against San Jose the second best game of the year. Fair enough. I have no problem with tonight taking over that mantle.