The Week Ahead: A Canadian Adventure
Predators, Playoff Push, and Poutine
The big talk around Smashville these days is of the — seemingly — inevitable rebuild that’s right around the corner. Players like Mattias Ekholm, Dante Fabbro, Mikael Granlund, and Ryan McDonagh have been mentioned as deadline fodder, while others have implored the team to consider the unthinkable, putting Juuse Saros on the block to fully #EmbraceTheTank.
In the background of all of this, the Nashville Predators are quietly playing some good hockey. They’re 6-2-2 in their last 10 games (and arguably played well enough to win in three of those losses), have 24 goals in their past 5 games, and in the games where the Predators have been severely outplayed, they’ve been able to steal wins thanks to elite goaltending.
Is all of this leading towards some epic turnaround that ends in a deep playoff run? Is it just a case of a mid team going on a run where things go their way?
Eh... that’s for “Future Us” to find out. For now, we’ll just hope the Predators can finish out the rest of this road trip on a high note.
Monday, January 9 - @ Ottawa Senators
This will be the second and final game between the Preds and Sens this season. The first contest, a 3-2 win for Ottawa, was a particularly sloppy one for Nashville marred by penalties and turnovers. The Sens converted on two of their six power play opportunities, which ultimately wound up being the difference.
Considering the Sens have — perhaps surprisingly — one of the best special teams units in the entire NHL (3rd on the PP, 6th on the PK), this is probably not a game the Preds will want to decide on the man advantage either way. The Sens don’t have great 5v5 numbers, largely based on their awful depth beyond their top stars. The Predators will likely get their fair share of chances, and if they can capitalize, this could be another big night for the suddenly-hot Preds offense.
That being said, the Predators will need to be wary of the Sens’ ability to score as well. Tim Stutzle, the 3rd overall pick from 2020, has scored 7 times in his past 5 games, including a 4-point effort (a hat trick and an assist) Saturday against Seattle. Combine his hot streak with good seasons from Brady Tkachuk, Claude Giroux, Drake Batherson, and Alex DeBrincat, and you have a unit that can wreak havoc on the Preds’ defense.
Wednesday, January 11 - @ Toronto Maple Leafs
If you’re a betting person, there might be some precedent to put some money down on a marquee goaltending performance in this game. Three out of the past five matchups between the Preds and Leafs have resulted in shutouts — two by Nashville and one by Toronto.
And I mean... hey... it’s possible! We know what Saros can do in net for Nashville, and the Maple Leafs have seemingly found some answers to their long-standing goaltending questions. Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray (yes, THAT Matt Murray) have split the starts right down the middle this season, and each have identical .916 save percentages. Whoever gets the start will likely be capable of a good performance in net for the Leafs.
Of course, goaltending isn’t the highlight of the Leafs’ roster. That would be the high-powered forward corps led by a 40-point quartet: Auston Matthews (20 G, 27 A), Mitch Marner (15 G, 34 A), John Tavares (19 G, 21 A), and William Nylander (22 G, 23 A). Let’s just say the Preds likely won’t want another 67-shots-against performance in this game; the Maple Leafs have the finishers to put away more than just a few of those.
Thursday, January 12 - @ Montreal Canadiens
We at least have some recency bias to predict how this game might go. The Predators and Canadiens played in Nashville last week. The Preds dominated that game en route to a 6-3 win, and was one of the few times this year we’ve really seen them put their feet on the necks of their opponent and run away with a game.
Can the Preds do it again? On paper, they probably should. Whether it’s scoring, team defense, special teams, or goaltending, the Habs are among the worst in the league at virtually every major statistical category. That being said, they DID just snap a seven-game losing streak thanks to an impressive 5-4 win over the St. Louis Blues. Four Habs had multi-point games in that contest, including Nick Suzuki, who leads Montreal with 34 points this year.
If the Preds want to make a run towards the postseason (whether or not YOU want them to), these are games they absolutely need to squeeze two easy points out of.
Saturday, January 14 - vs. Buffalo Sabres
This will be the first game at Bridgestone Arena in over a week and a half, and from a pure entertainment standpoint, you couldn’t pick a better game.
The Buffalo Sabres are one of the league’s most fun teams to watch. They own the NHL’s best offense, scoring 4 goals per game, and their roster is packed with up-and-coming young players. The headliner is Tage Thompson, who has gone from a hulking bottom-six forward into a legitimate MVP candidate in the span of two seasons. Thompson — currently second in the NHL in goals (31) and fourth in points (56) — is a prime example of what can happen when a franchise (and its fans... *cough cough...*) stay patient with their prospects and let them develop at their own pace.
Alex Tuch (44 points), Jeff Skinner (39 points), and Dylan Cozens (37 points) are among the several other forwards who can provide scoring support behind Thompson. But don’t take your eye off the blue line either. Rasmus Dahlin, the 2018 #1 pick, is playing himself into the Norris conversation with a breakthrough season, while Owen Power, the 2021 #1 pick, is having an impressive rookie campaign, averaging nearly 24-minutes of ice time per game as a 20-year-old.
Which game are you most looking forward to this week?