Thank goodness the Nashville Predators have pretty much locked up their trip to the playoffs, as it takes a bit of the anxiety out of what would otherwise be a daunting schedule coming up this week. While there is 4th-place in the Western Conference to fight for, the important thing for the Preds to work on right now is getting healthy and fine-tuning their lineup in order to be at their best when the post-season starts.
"We got all caught up in all the stuff that was happening with us a little bit," Coach Barry Trotz said. "I don't think we had a real good focus, so we're trying to get our game and our lines in order."
Nashville will have ample opportunity to test how well their game is working this week, as three extremely competitive Central Division rivals are on tap...
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Tuesday @ St. Louis
While they likely wouldn't face the St. Louis Blues until the Western Conference Finals (should both teams make it there), the Predators will want to keep up their strong record against the Central Division leaders (4-0-1 so far this season). Don't let the record fool you, however, as three of those games have gone to the shootout, so it's not like Nashville has run the Blues out of the building.
For St. Louis, this year has been a story of potential fulfilled, as Ken Hitchcock found a new recipe using the ingredients already available and has the Blues on the brink of their first division title since 2000. In typical fashion, it's all about a structured team defense supporting the goaltenders, and a scoring-by-committee approach up front. Just check out who's leading the way for St. Louis. Only Columbus & Minnesota have their top scorers with fewer than 50 points:
#74 / Center / St. Louis Blues
Dec 23, 1986
|2011 - T.J. Oshie||74||18||32||50||16||46||3||1||3||175||10.3|
Friday @ Detroit
This will prove to a key game in the race for 4th spot in the West, and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Given how strong Detroit has generally been at Joe Louis Arena this season, the Preds would certainly want to take that edge away from the Red Wings if they're to meet up for a third series. Right now, Nashville is one point ahead of Detroit while having played one more game, but by the time they meet Friday, they'll both be down to their final five of the regular season, as the Red Wings have a home-and-home with Columbus tonight and Wednesday.
Sure, the Red Wings are hobbling down the stretch as injuries have undermined them lately, but this guy returned about a week ago, and is playing 20 minutes a night again. Let's just make sure he doesn't have the puck on his stick in the waning seconds of a tied game, OK?
#13 / Center / Detroit Red Wings
Jul 20, 1978
|2011 - Pavel Datsyuk||63||17||43||60||17||14||4||0||5||150||11.3|
Saturday vs. Chicago
After pasting the Blackhawks 6-1 yesterday, and pushing their record this season to 4-0-1 against Chicago, the Hawks will be itching for revenge Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena. Given the way things are shaping up, however, it may behoove Chicago to settle in comfortably for the #6 seed in the West, and a matchup with the Pacific Division winner in the first round.
They'll still miss star defenseman Duncan Keith, who is serving a 5-game suspension for an elbow to the head of Daniel Sedin. The main question for this game, then, is whether or not captain Jonathan Toews is ready to go. He's been out for over a month with a concussion, but has been skating with the team lately.
#19 / Center / Chicago Blackhawks
Apr 29, 1988
|2011 - Jonathan Toews||59||29||28||57||+17||28||5||1||4||185||15.7|
Given this slate of divisional opponents, how well do you think the Preds will do this week?