Burning the Candle at Both Ends: A Demanding Remaining Schedule Awaits the Predators

Nashville enters the All-Star break with the fewest games played, but the distribution of their remaining games may be cause for concern.

The Nashville Predators played their last pre-All Star break game against the Buffalo Sabres last Saturday, January 18th and resume play today.  The combination of the All-Star break plus the annual bye week means that Nashville’s 47 games played is the fewest in the league—trailing the New York Rangers (48) and the Florida Panthers (49).

Games in hand are usually—and rightfully—viewed as a good thing: Nashville has more opportunities remaining to gain standings points over other teams in the playoff hunt.  However, the layout of Nashville’s remaining schedule is much more demanding than it initially appears.

We’ve Got Tonight - Who Needs Tomorrow? (Answer: Nashville)

Aside from bringing up memories of a very sad episode of The Wonder Years, the Predators can’t afford to adopt the mentality of Bob Seger’s 1978 classic.  Of Nashville’s remaining 35 games, 16 (45.7%) are part of a back-to-back, and only five of those are one of the 17 home games left.

Predators Back to Back Schedule

DatesOpponent 1 (Current Points)Opponent 2 (Current Points)
January 29th-30that Washington (71 points)at New Jersey (41) *
February 15th-16that St. Louis (68)ST. LOUIS (68)
February 21st-22ndat Chicago (64)COLUMBUS (62)
March 2nd-3rdEDMONTON (57)at Minnesota (52)
March 14th-15that Columbus (62)at Minnesota (52)
March 21st-22ndPHILADELPHIA (60)at Chicago (64)
March 28th-29that Arizona (57)at Colorado (62)
April 1st-2ndMONTREAL (51) *at Philadelphia (60)

With ten weeks remaining in Nashville’s regular season schedule:

  • Eight weeks will include at least one half of a back-to-back (games on Saturday with a follow-up the next day).
  • Four of the back-to-back series will be Saturday/Sunday.
  • Four times, Nashville will finish the second half of a back-to-back and start another within seven calendar days.
  • Nashville will play the first half of six back-to-back series with only a single day’s rest—spending four of these rest days flying to away games.
  • Four of these games will be played as the second half of a back-to-back with the opponents having one or more days of rest.
  • Thankfully, the other four games on the second part of a back-to-back are being played against teams also having zero days rest./

Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz.com has a very good visual representation of the remaining NHL schedule—red-highlighted games represent a team with no rest playing one with at least one game, and grey-highlighted games represent both teams playing the day before.

Of all 31 NHL teams, Nashville’s eight back-to-back series yet to come is matched only by the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Boston Bruins (seven back-to-back series) are the only team besides Nashville to play four games on the second half of a back-to-back against a rested opponent.

The Predators face their toughest test in March, during the thick of the playoff hunt.  They begin the month on the 2nd with a Tuesday home game and Wednesday away game.  After that, March 7th-8th is the only weekend left in the month without a back-to-back.  Following the one on March 28th-29th, they get a much-needed two day break before finishing the season with three games in the final four days of the regular season.

If there’s one silver lining to this aggressively difficult month, it is that only one Saturday night game is played at home at Bridgestone Arena in March.  Nashville is just 2-4-1 in Saturday night home games this season, and the team’s overall struggles in their home city have been well-documented by Adam Vingan of the Athletic (link paywalled).

How Have Things Gone So Far?

So far this season, Nashville has only had four back-to-back series, and didn’t have one until November 29th-30th—nearly a full two months after the start of the season.  In those four series, the Predators have gone 4-3-1, and have a record of only 1-2-1 in the second games, with the sole win at the New York Islanders (the Predators lost at Anaheim in a shootout in Peter Laviolette’s final game as head coach, and lost lopsided games at Florida and at Pittsburgh in regulation).

Goaltending had a significant impact on these results, with an average all-situations save percentage of 95.2% in the 4 wins, and 87.3% in the four losses.  Excluding the two Pittsburgh games in which both goalies were pulled for the other, Pekka Rinne was 3-0-0 with a 95.3% save percentage, while Juuse Saros went 1-1-1 with a 92.2%.  Closer inspection, however, reveals that Saros received only an average of 3 goals of goal support per game by the Nashville skaters, while Rinne had an average of 5 goals scored per game.

In those two Pittsburgh games, both goalies gave up 3 goals before being pulled and allowed 2 more in relief duty, both posting a save percentage below 85% (Rinne - 84.8%, Saros - 80.7%).  Pekka Rinne in the previous back-to-backs grades out much like he has in the regular season—better than Juuse Saros, but not by that much.

The other major issue for this team in back-to-backs was special teams play.  In four of the eight games, neither team scored on special teams, and Nashville went 2-2-0.  In the other four, however, Nashville had 4 goals on the power play, but two of those came in the lopsided 8-3 win over the Islanders (as well as a shorthanded goal against)—the others came in losses against Anaheim and Pittsburgh.

Much more worrying are the 7 goals given up on the penalty kill in those four games.  One goal each were allowed against the Islanders and Kings, but those games Nashville won by multiple scores.  The other five PK goals came against Anaheim and Pittsburgh—sound familiar?  In the second game against the Penguins, Nashville gave up 3 goals on the penalty kill while only scoring 1 on the power play.  In the shootout loss to Anaheim, they allowed 2 goals on the penalty kill while only scoring one on the power play.  The outcome of these two games could have been changed with better special teams play on either special teams unit.

Overall, Nashville played these eight games much like they have the rest of the year, with up and down goaltending and terrible special teams play.  The Predators have long been a team that rides high shooting percentages, and had excellent goaltending to back it up when they can’t find the net.  This season has been different, and it shows overall and in back-to-backs so far.

You're Going to Ask If They Can Play These Games Back-to-Back*

Despite seven of the eight games coming on the road, Nashville managed to earn 9 of 16 points.  With 16 back-to-back games remaining, that pace would give Nashville 18 of 32 possible points for the season.  These games would have a significant impact on the Predators’ post-season hopes:

  • The Predators currently sit with 51 points in the standings
  • If they win at a similar pace as earlier this season, 8-6-2 would give Nashville an additional 18 points
  • Of the 19 other games left, the team would have to earn 23 of 38 remaining points to make the projected 92-point playoff threshold (predicted by HockeyViz.com)/
Nashville’s success with this demanding remaining schedule full of back-to-backs comes down to the two factors that contributed to Peter Laviolette’s dismissal earlier this month: goaltending and special teams.

Success in the back-to-back games would give Nashville a tremendous edge in their playoff hopes—seven games are against Central Division rivals, including two each against Chicago  (54 points) and Minnesota (52 points) that are well within range of Nashville.  Edmonton and Arizona (both at 57 points) are likely to be Nashville’s competition for a wildcard position as well.  Asking Nashville to play slightly higher than 0.500 hockey doesn’t seem like much, but six of the games in the back-to-back series are against teams in the top eight of the league (eight games if you include 11th-place Philadelphia).

Coach John Hynes has to manage these games carefully in order to give Nashville the best chance at making the post-season, and with nearly half of all remaining games being back-to-backs, there is little margin for error, even if Nashville hasn’t played much differently in those games up to this point.

* Thank you, Drake