The Nashville Predators squeaked into the playoffs, getting locked into the second wildcard spot after an inglorious loss to the basement-dwelling Arizona Coyotes. Finishing the regular season by blowing a 4-0 lead to lose in regulation might be a bad omen or a sign of the team’s true talent—or it might be the motivation they need to go on another miracle run like they did in 2017.
The Colorado Avalanche are a heavy favorite. They have no salient weaknesses as a team, and a lot of very obvious strengths. They combine a high-powered offense with a phenomenal defense and great goaltending.
They also draw a lot of penalties, bring a strong and effective power play, and kill off the penalties they do take. Most of the same can’t be said about the Preds, whose penalty-taking has been a weakness all season long. About the one thing I can say about the nightly parade to the penalty box is that, for the most part, despite the sheer number of penalties, a majority of them have not been malicious or unusually dangerous. It’s been frustrating to watch as a fan, but at least I’ve only very rarely felt like I was cheering for dirty players.
Still, it’s been a lot of penalties. The Preds can absolutely lose this series on that alone. If they had Juuse Saros back from injury, and if the Preds’ penalty kill (skaters and Saros both) could shrug off ten shorthanded minutes a night without a sweat, that might be one thing. Even then, though, the Preds have struggled to score shorthanded this year. Even more to the point, most of their best players aren’t given shifts on the penalty kill, meaning that’s ten shorthanded minutes a night spent trying not to lose instead of trying to win.
It’s academic, though: Juuse Saros isn’t expected to play for at least the first two games in the series. There has been a report that the actual timetable for Saros’s injury is probably closer to four to six weeks than four to six games, though the Predators obviously haven’t announced anything like that.
With Saros out, the Preds have a considerable weakness in goal. David Rittich is not a starting goalie for a playoff team. Connor Ingram has a lot of talent, but has only played three NHL games in his career and has been slowly working his way back to form this season after missing almost all of last season. Ingram in particular could be a pleasant surprise—the Preds’ Cam Ward or Matt Murray, though Murray had several dominant AHL seasons under his belt when he was called up to Pittsburgh—but he will have to adjust very quickly if so.
The Preds have had a good record this season against the Avalanche, going 3-1-0 in a sequence of high-scoring goalfests. It’s important to remember that two of those wins needed extra time, and the gimmick of 3v3 overtime or the shootout, for the Preds to secure the second point. Still, playing real hockey, the Preds have held their own against this particular opponent, and that could count for something.
We shouldn’t look to the 2018 series as a guide for this one, though there’s a definite feeling of deja vu in a Preds-Avs matchup where one team is a favorite and the other is definitely not. Most of the Preds’ 2018 roster is gone, while the Avalanche’s rebuild has progressed drastically. If the Preds can win one of the first two games—especially tonight’s game—that will change the conversation in a major way.
Let’s hope they do.
The game will air at 8:30 PM Central on Bally Sports South and 102.5 The Game.