The Week Ahead: Now or Never
If the Predators want to make a postseason run, they’ll need to act fast
Monday, January 16 - vs. Calgary Flames
At the time, the result of the first matchup between these two this season was arguably the Preds’ most surprising result. Nashville, in the midst of an abysmal start to the season, absolutely dominated the Flames in a 4-1 win back on November 3rd. Filip Forsberg and Matt Duchene each had a goal and an assist each, and Kevin Lankinen made 29 saves.
Since then, however, both teams have gone in separate directions. The Preds are muddling in mediocrity, while the Flames have become one of the hotter teams in the Western Conference as of late. Calgary has secured points in eight of their last ten games (6-2-2 in that span). Several of their key new faces are also starting to settle into the lineup, particularly Nazem Kadri, who has six points (3 G, 3 A) over his last five games.
The Achilles heel for Calgary might be their goaltending, which can be “nicely” described as inconsistent. Jacob Markstrom, a Vezina finalist alongside Juuse Saros a year ago, has struggled mightily this season (.894 save percentage with 0 shutouts) despite a statistically better defense in front of him than last year. That’s led to backup Dan Vladar getting more playing time recently, including the past two starts. If Vladar gets the start against the Preds, Flames fans may get to discuss an official goaltending controversy.
Tuesday, January 17 - vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
In theory, the Preds SHOULD win this game. The Blue Jackets are at the bottom of the NHL standings, and unlike some of their fellow draft lottery hopefuls who embraced the tank to get there — like Chicago or San Jose — the Blue Jackets got to this point unintentionally. They’re not in an active rebuild... they’re just bad. Half of their key players are injured, the defense and goaltending have been non-existent, and while marquee-addition Johnny Gaudreau has been solid, he hasn’t had the same “take over the game” impact that Columbus fans were hoping for.
Of course, you’ll notice I prefaced that last paragraph with “in theory.” That’s because it should be noticed that Columbus steamrolled the Preds the first time these two played each other in October. The Blue Jackets scored four goals in the third period to completely unravel a game the Preds looked like they had in the bag. It was the third time the CBJ’s had beaten Nashville in their prior four meetings.
Considering the Predators are coming off another embarrassing performance in a “you should definitely be better than this team” matchup against Montreal last week, and considering the Blue Jackets just snapped a losing streak thanks to a 4-3 win over Detroit on Saturday, this is probably one a game Preds fans will be watching more intently than they probably should.
Thursday, January 19 - @ St. Louis Blues
This will be the third matchup between the Preds and Blues this season, and the first two could not have been more night and day. The first game, in October, saw the Predators wipe the floor with St. Louis en route to a convincing 6-2 win. Game 2, in December, was a sloppy, sluggish affair that ended in a 1-0 overtime win for the Blues.
The third game features the exact same meaning for both teams. The Preds and Blues are in the same spots as a franchise right now; both are underperforming, both have cores that are at or near the end of their prime years, and both are looking at the next month of their seasons to determine their roles at the deadline. To bring it all full circle, the Preds and Blues are also neck-and-neck in the standings as of Monday (the Blues have 45 points, the Preds have 44 with two games in hand.)
While this matchup will have a much different vibe than the closely contested Blue-Preds battles of the past decade that determined playoff seeding, it’s still a bitter divisional rivalry. There’s plenty of historic bad blood between both teams, and when you throw in the fact that both teams are fighting for their futures, this could be a game that features a lot of... let’s say “passion.”
Saturday, January 21 - vs. Los Angeles Kings
Like every other game this week, this is a repeat contest. The Predators dominated most of the first matchup, but the Kings scored twice in the final 10 minutes of the 3rd period to tie the game, then won in a shootout to steal a 4-3 win.
The Kings have fixed some early-season issues to get back towards the top tier of the Western Conference. And if you’re someone not thrilled at the Preds’ recent history with giving up on young forwards, you probably won’t like the fact that Kevin Fiala seems to be leading the charge for L.A.. The Preds’ top pick from 2014 leads the Kings with 47 points in 46 games. To pile on the nostalgia factor, Viktor Arvidsson (despite missing a few games due to injury) has 33 points, and is on pace for his best statistical season since his then-record-breaking 2017-18 campaign with the Preds.
While goaltending has been a question mark for Kings this season, they’ve made up for it with the familiar stifling defense that helped them become a two-time Cup-winner in the 2010s. Per NaturalStatTrick, the Kings are the third best team in the league at xGA/60 with just 2.8 expected goals allowed, meaning they don’t cede many quality scoring chances. If the Preds want to steal a win, they’ll need to take advantage of their chances.
Which game are you most looking forward to?