Now that the Tennessee Titans have wrapped up their 2013 season by rolling Mike Munchak's head down the steps of Baelor's Sept, and college football has crowned its champion, I think Mother Nature is trying to tell us something:
It's Hockey Season, folks!
For you football fans who are thinking about making a trip to Bridgestone Arena soon to see the Preds (they're starting a 5-game home stand tonight against San Jose), let's bring you up to speed on how the 2013-14 season has played out so far.
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How are the Preds doing?
Much like the Titans, we can say that the Predators are a little bit better than last season, but are still outside of the playoff hunt. As of today they've played 43 (out of 82) games, and have a record of 18-19-6.
Just in case you didn't know, that means they've won 18 games, lost 19 in regulation time, and lost 6 more in overtime or the shootout, for which the NHL gives a team "half credit". If you win a game you get two points in the standings, but if you lose in overtime or the shootout you still get one point (often called the Loser Point by those of us who despise how it distorts the standings).
Remember how the Titans lost to Arizona in overtime back in Week 15, 37-34? If that was an NHL game the Titans would have received "half a win" for that valiant effort, instead of a simple loss. It's pretty much a gimmick the NHL runs to keep teams competitive in the standings for a longer portion of the season, but that's the way hockey works. If you think in terms of simple wins & losses, the Preds are 18-25.
Anyway, as of right now, the Predators are 7 points (3 1/2 games) out of a playoff spot, with three teams between them and the playoff pack. That's what makes this stretch of home games so important - if the Preds falter, they could fall completely out of reach of the post-season.
Western Conference Standings
|St. Louis Blues||41||29-7-5||63|
|San Jose Sharks||43||27-10-6||60|
|Los Angeles Kings||43||26-13-4||56|
What's the problem with this team?
The most obvious issue has been a hip infection suffered by franchise goaltender Pekka Rinne, who underwent surgery several months ago, started out the season just fine in October, but then had an infection flare up which has kept him on the shelf since October 24th. It's an extremely unusual situation with an uncertain timetable for recovery. The hope is that within the next couple weeks he can begin ramping up physical activity and begin getting back in game shape, but there's little reason to expect that he'll play in a game any time soon.
Besides goaltending being an issue (the Preds have tried to rely on inexperienced backups to fill in for Rinne, and that's been an up-and-down adventure), Nashville is once again one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league. During the summer GM David Poile did something highly unusual for him: he went out on the first day of free agency and threw a lot of money and long term contracts at mid-level to lower-tier players, banking on depth to carry the day in the absence of proven star-quality talent among the forwards.
Along with the lack of a top-notch scorer (or two, or three, as some teams have), many fans aren't crazy about head coach Barry Trotz's relatively conservative style, which leads to a lot of "dump and chase" hockey, wherein guys are encouraged to chip the puck deep into the offensive zone rather than carry it in (which runs the risk of a turnover). In football terms, think of a team getting 1st & 10 at the opponent's 45 yard line, then attempting a coffin-corner punt immediately in order to pin their opponent near the goal line rather than press the attack. Nashville ranks 25th (out of 30 teams) in goal scoring, and have been shut out six times in 43 games, tied for most in the league.
Typically, superior goaltending and defense have made up for the Predators' underwhelming offensive attack, but due to the combination of Rinne's hip infection and inconsistent defensive play by an influx of young blueliners, that margin for error has disappeared.
So who's on the hot seat?
I know what you're thinking - just like fans and media talked for weeks about whether Mike Munchak should be fired because he Titans missed the playoffs again, there must be a lot of heat being put on the Predators, right?
Well, not really.
Basically, making the playoffs in 7 of 8 seasons from 2004-2012 has built up a tremendous amount of goodwill for head coach Barry Trotz and general manager David Poile, both of whom have been with the franchise from Day One. Even though they only moved past the first round twice in those seven playoff appearances, Poile & Trotz have earned a reputation for assembling competitive teams around a philosophy often called "the Predator Way".
I've made my position clear that it's time for change, and I expect that the chorus will grow as the end of the season approaches. But the level of heat is nowhere close to what we've seen with the Titans.
Who are the main stars?
With Rinne out, team captain Shea Weber is carrying the team as best he can, and to his credit he's having a great season. He plays about half the game on most nights (the 4th-highest individual workload in the NHL), but one guy can only do so much.
The two guys to pay most attention to among the forwards are Mike Fisher and Craig Smith - Fisher is on an absolute tear these days, while Smith leads the team in goal scoring overall.
If you like the rough stuff, watch out for when Paul Gaustad's line hits the ice. Along with Matt Hendricks and sometimes Rich Clune they make up the "Wagon Line", which is bent on creating wanton destruction during their shifts, dishing out hits and dropping the gloves for the occasional fight.
Are any of the Nashville Predators going to the Winter Olympics?
You might remember how back in 2010, the Preds played a major role in the Vancouver Winter Olympics, as Ryan Suter and Shea Weber were top defensemen for Team USA & Canada, respectively. The Gold Medal game between the US & Canada was the most-watched hockey game on American TV since the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" team won gold, and Nashville's finest were right there in the middle of the action.
Coming up this February, the Winter Olympics will be played in Sochi, Russia, and Shea Weber is a lock to play a prominent role for Team Canada once again. Roman Josi will also be a team leader for Switzerland, but that's about it. Patric Hornqvist had hoped to make Team Sweden but fell short this time.
Who are the young guys to watch?
There are some really interesting young players to keep an eye on with Nashville, most prominently Seth Jones, the rangy 19-year-old defenseman who Nashville selected with the 4th overall pick in last summer's draft. The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones (who's now an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers), Jones has all the tools to become a premier NHL defenseman. Earlier this season he scored perhaps the best goal of the season, a game-winner on the road in Montreal:
Besides Jones, the one other high-potential youngster is Filip Forsberg, a forward who was picked up in trade for Martin Erat last spring. He just turned in a dominant performance at the World Junior Championships in Sweden, but as he returns to North America, it's uncertain as to whether or not he'll play for Nashville or their minor-league affiliate the Milwaukee Admirals.
Going to Preds games is a fun time, right?
Absolutely - win or lose, the Predators put on one of the most entertaining game experiences you'll find. The action flows so much better than in football, where each play involves maybe 10 seconds of action, followed by a minute or so of spotting the ball, huddles, and all too often, a TV timeout.
Instead, hockey is a fast-moving game, loaded with thundering hits, the occasional fight, and two(!) halftimes, complete with live music and plenty of opportunity to load up on good grub like Bacon-On-A-Stick. Just remember - don't move to or from your seat while play is going on! Just wait for a whistle which calls for a brief break in the action, there's usually one about every minute or so.
And if you have questions about what the heck is going on out there, feel free to ask! Preds fans are a welcoming bunch who won't mock you too badly just because you can't tell a hybrid icing from a trapezoid violation.
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