Fresh off mud stomping the New York Islanders, the Nashville Predators stroll into Washington, D.C. with the Capitals in their crosshairs. Thanks to some excellent play on their part, and an end of the season slump by the Chicago Blackhawks, the Predators find themselves only three points out of third place in the division.
The red team, on the other hand, is fresh off clinching their eighth trip to the postseason in nine years. They can wrap up the Metro division and the Eastern Conference as early as this weekend. *Checks calendar* ...Damn.
The Washington Capitals
With even winning the President's trophy pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point, it's understandable to think the Caps players have nothing to play for at this juncture. To the rest of the hockey world, they'll only be judged on what they accomplish in the playoffs, so maybe it might be time to rest some players and heal up for their hopeful Cup run.
Trotz basically said he wouldn't rest players unless someone has an injury that would prevent them from playing.— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) March 17, 2016
Oh... Well, then.
It's probably for the best. Washington has been plagued by slow starts for well over a month now, surrendering the first goal in 16 of the last 21 games they've played. The league's best team has hardly spent any time playing with a lead in the first period over the course of the last few month, but still have the best points percentage after allowing that first goal. It's bizarre.
They're essentially using a paint by numbers approach, and it looks a little like this:
- Period #1: *Comically loud snoring*
- Period #2: Guess we should probably start playing, eh? Da.
- Period #3: DESTROY
The Rangers, Lightning, Penguins and, more recently, Stars and Kings have all seen how deadly the Caps can be in the third period. Of course, relying on the above script probably isn't going to do them any favors in the spring and summer. Barry Trotz is going to use this time to make sure his players' heads are on right and they're ready for what's to come
Whether that's putting Jay Beagle on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for a spell, or rotating through Taylor Chorney, Nate Schmidt and Mike Weber depending on the needs of the game. Washington is certainly built like a contender. They're a Western Conference team playing in the Eastern Conference. These next two seasons will be their best shot at a Cup run and, while it's hard to expect a continuous balls to the wall effort from a team with nothing to play for right now, evening out their performances in these last few games will quell a lot of concerns their fans have.
The Nashville Predators
This is unexpected:
Nashville's 14-game point streak and subsequent wins have vaulted them that close to Chicago. I am on record saying that getting that third spot in the division was going to be all but impossible, but they are certainly making it look like I'll eat my words.
But before dreams of a St. Louis Blues first round matchup start dancing through your head, check out both teams remaining schedule. In their remaining 11 games, the Hawks only play five games against teams in playoff position. The Wild (x2), Bruins, Blues, and Stars. Meanwhile, Nashville has eight games against postseason dreaming teams, including the next two against the monstrous Capitals and Kings.
Whether they catch the Hawks or remain in the first wild card spot shouldn't be that much of a concern. The door is wide open to play anyone from the Stars to the Kings to the Blues to the Ducks. None of them are going to be easy match ups, but with the way the team is rolling right now it may not matter.
Ever since the start of the season we've harped that Nashville just needed to stick with what they were doing. The effort was there but the results weren't, mostly because of some lousy individual shooting percentages and awful play by Pekka Rinne. That's since rebounded, and the Predators have stayed a top-five team in both their percentage of scoring chances for/against and total shot attempts.
A playoff spot, while still not mathematically guaranteed, is pretty much a foregone conclusion right now. Enjoy these last 11 games, especially if they play them like they have over the past several weeks. You never know when the ride is going to stop.
Reasons to Watch
- The Caps are wearing their throwback thirds tonight, and they are one hundred emoji fire emoji.
- Gretzky's Office has a giant "SOLD" sticker slapped across it. Out in front, there's a sign that reads "Future home of Kuznetzov Industries."
- The defensive pair of Brooks Orpik and Dmirty Orlov has been sub-optimal in John Carlson's absence. Peter Laviolette won't have last change, but anytime he can sneak the Ribeiro line out there with them, you'll see the wingers' mouths foaming. Washington hopes to have #74 back soon. (Oh hey, a timely piece from J.P. over at Japers' Rink on this thought.)