So here we are. With only four games remaining in the season, the Nashville Predators have clinched the playoffs for the 2nd consecutive season. And they did it without even playing a game. While the coming days will be filled with playoff prognostication and post-season pre-planning, the Predators will play a few games here and there in the meantime. Starting with the San Jose Sharks tonight.
Like the Preds, the Sharks have already clinched the playoffs, and they have a 98% chance of finishing in 3rd in the Pacific. The jury is still out on whether they will face the Ducks or the Kings. I'm not sure either one of those teams want to play the Sharks, as you'll see below. The Sharks will be a good playoff test for the Predators, even if the game means little more than playoff seeding.
The San Jose Sharks
The Sharks have four players with at least 20 goals and nine players with at least 10. This Sharks team is deep and talented and can score at will. Scoring 2.91 goals/game, good for 3rd in the NHL, the key to stopping the Sharks is to limit their scoring chances, while also taking advantage of their defense in any way possible. Keep the big guys, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, out of the middle of the ice. Limit the time and space that guys like Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture have to work with on the wings. I don't know what you do to stop Mr. Wonderful, aka Joel Ward, but I'm sure there is something. If you get in a high scoring bonanza with this team, you will lose more than you win. You are going to have to DEFEND.
Defend? Yes. Defend. That thing that the Predators have not being doing all that well for the last 3 games.
The Sharks, by the way, also do a great job at preventing shots in their own end. Like, as in, they lead the league in even-strength shot suppression: 25.9 SA/60. So the Sharks are great at scoring and great defensively... why aren't they challenging for the President's Cup? Mostly because of goaltending. Martin Jones is performing about like you'd expect a $3 million goalie to perform, which is right around his career save % at .918. But at even-strength, the Sharks are 22nd in the league with a .922 save %. Thus why the Sharks obtained James Reimer from the Leafs, who has been really solid in 6 starts since coming over in late February.
Bottom line: this team is very, very good. The Predators would probably be better off not facing this team in the playoffs. Thankfully, the only way that happens is in the semifinal round, after the Kings or Ducks have had a crack at knocking them out.
The Nashville Predators
Team James Neal vs. Team Filip Forsberg.
Other than holding on to the top wild-card spot, that's about all there is to root for in these last four games. Among the many reasons you should root for Team Forsberg:
Filip Forsberg reacts to Leksand advance to SHL. #shl #princefilip @HockeyWebCast @PredsNHL @NHL pic.twitter.com/y8UtII55qn— Hare Brahs (@HareBrahs) April 1, 2016
How could you not root for someone so precious and happy?
Forsberg and Neal are tied for the team lead with 31 goals each. While I will be rooting for Forsberg to finish with the goals lead, it would be fantastic if both Forsberg and Neal were able to break Arnott's record of 33 goals in a season. If two players broke the goal scoring record in one season, we can be confident in saying that a new era of Predators hockey is underway and that Laviolette's influence is undeniable, right? After all, not since the '05-'06 and '06-'07 seasons have the Preds had this much goal scoring success... right?
Well, sort of. But really, the Predators are still having scoring issues, at least when it comes to depth. Below is a look at the Predators history of goal scoring along with the number of players with at least 10 goals that season.
I removed the 2012-13 stoppage shortened season for the purposes of this comparison. Also, that mountain of goal scoring in the 2005-07 seasons is more due to all the league changes to boost scoring, in addition to the salary cap that helped Nashville get players like Paul Kariya and Jason Arnott. But if you look, this year the Preds may end up with the fewest number of 10 goal scorers in a season in franchise history. Ryan Ellis has 9 goals, while Ekholm, Johansen, and Arvidsson all have 8, so I suppose it is possible, just not very likely with only four games left (especially with the questions around Ellis). Speaking of Joey, he technically has 14 goals on the season, but only 8 were scored while a member of the Preds.
The point is this: the Predators have relied far too much on the top blue-liners and 2-3 forwards to provide all the scoring this year. Too many players are out there as role players, playmakers and passers, but not for goal scoring. Scoring depth is not what it should be going into the post-season. San Jose, Dallas, Chicago... all these Western Conference playoff teams are poised to put up numbers on the scoreboard. Nashville will have to find a scoring boost from somewhere else other than Forsberg and Neal if they want a deep playoff run.
Regardless, for the next four games, I'm Team Forsberg. Come join me.
Reasons To Watch
- Might we see more Carter Hutton in the next few games? BY GOODNESS, I HOPE SO. So that could be fun to watch. See if he can get on a roll.
- Pay attention to the defense in this game. San Jose is able to put up goals by the bushel. Lately, teams have been exploiting the middle with long passes, while also using speed to get around the outside. See if Lavy and Co. have changed anything up...
- This might be one of the last few games you can watch without having to watch your blood pressure carefully. Come on out to the Bridge (or tune in to your TV) and enjoy some casual hockey before the real nightmare begins.
The Important Details
7 PM start. TV: FS-TN. Radio: 102.5 The Game