Random thoughts as we have a few days to take it all in...
A couple of weeks ago, when the Preds were 10 points behind the Red Wings in the Central, I had this team pegged for a 4-5 matchup in the first round. I figured they were done with the way the Wings were playing, especially at the Joe. Since then, the streak has been halted and Nashville has crept back to within a half-dozen points and a couple of meetings left with the Winged Wheel. Now, it's a three-team race for the Central and the 1-2 seed in the West (Vancouver's not going anywhere, folks). Winning the remaining games with DET and STL will go a long way toward possibly passing both teams. Thankfully, I was wrong before. The Central's still in sight.
Let's face it, though. The Preds are a tired team. They have just finished arguably the most difficult stretch of the season with the last eight games. Getting 11 out of a possible 16 points in that stretch is tremendous considering the quality of opponents they faced. That fatigue likely manifested itself last night in Raleigh. Penalties were a killer, and they were the "lazy penalties" that a tired team might commit. The three days of rest for this team is badly needed and should recharge the batteries for the final month plus three games.
The West standings look much different since the last time I discussed them. Detroit is no longer at the top, San Jose has backslid out of the Pacific lead and Phoenix (yes, folks, the Coyotes) has taken the Sharks' place atop that division in the 3 slot. The Yotes are 9-0-1 in the last 10 and they're beating anything that moves, going 11-0-1 for the month. The Preds haven't seen this club since Dec. 6 and had better be on top of things when the two hook up in the desert on Mar. 12.
The schedule will not get any easier. The Preds only have two games remaining against non-contenders (Edmonton and Minnesota), plus one more West Coast trip to handle. A Central Division gauntlet also looms at the end of the month (three road games plus a home tilt with the Blackhawks). But the team can get back into a rhythm as well, as we are now in the final three-day gap between games of the regular season. The team will get its rest now.
Speaking of rest, Pekka Rinne may not get much of it down the stretch. I feel sorry for Anders Lindback, though, because the kid has a world of talent and the results just haven't went his way this year. But he needs some games in the final month, if for nothing else, his confidence. I think he needs to start the front end of the back-to-back at Los Angeles on St. Patty's Day and let Rinne handle the Ducks the next night. I also think he should get the nod against Colorado (Mar. 8), Edmonton (Mar. 20) and Minnesota (Apr. 3).
Finally, about the acquisitions of Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad. Everyone can get all excited and say we're a true contender. I believe we already were contenders before the deadline. What concerns me is how this team will jell the final month of the season. Both players need a handful of games to get acclimated to their new surroundings. That said, I commend David Poile and the moves he made to give this team a shot at winning the Cup. I think by the time the West Coast trip ends, we'll know exactly what type of team we have. That's the biggest thing about an extended trip. The chemistry in the locker room will start to build with the current group.
Forget last night's loss at Carolina. If you're going to lose one, do it to an Eastern Conference team where the damage is minimal. The guys should be refocused by the time the team travels to Florida for Saturday's game with the Panthers. It's a good time to be a Preds fan, and the last 18 games are going to make for some riveting hockey. Hang on.