As the Preds prepare for Wednesday’s game at Phoenix, Pred-heads are abuzz with the certainty that the Predators are returning to the playoffs after narrowly missing them last season. No longer are Pred-heads watching the scoreboards hoping that matchups will fall a certain way to push the Preds into the post season. In spite of the skepticism of “experts” in the media, a rash of injuries to key personnel throughout the season and a miserable start to the campaign, Nashville has taken care of business themselves and last week clenched a return to the playoffs. As of this post, the Predators sit in 5th place in the West with 98 points and 2 games remaining. They are 4 points behind Phoenix, who have 3 games remaining. A single point earned by Phoenix in any of their last 3 games will ensure that Nashville cannot overtake them for 4th, which is the final position providing home-ice advantage. Nashville does have SOME say in the Coyotes final position since we play them on Wednesday, but considering Phoenix will have another 2 games to earn a point even if Nashville beats them in regulation Wednesday, the likelihood is that Nashville not have home-ice advantage in the opening round. The attention then turns to 4 teams, of which one will be the Predators host in the opening round: the San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks or the Phoenix Coyotes.
I’m expecting that if you were to have a survey of Preds fans of which team you would most like to avoid in the opening round, the majority would respond with the San Jose Sharks. And I would be in that majority. I think San Jose is the only one of the 4 teams that could get into the heads of the Preds, having twice eliminated Nashville from first-round playoff action in seasons prior and having completely embarrassed the Predators on March 11 when they scored 6 goals in the 3rd period to rebound from a 4-2 deficit at the 2nd intermission to win 8-5. This season Pekka Rinne is 1-1-0 against San Jose but that comes with a GAA (goals-against average) of 3.88 and a save percentage of .873. The HP Pavilion is widely known as one of the least friendly arenas in the league, housing a loud and energetic crowd to serve as a constant source of inspiration for the players. San Jose does however rely heavily on the Heatley-Marleau-Thornton line for much of its offensive production. Thornton has been oft-criticized for his fading out during the post-season, and it also makes it easier for Trotz to keep his powerhouse defense pairing of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter up against the Sharks’ biggest offensive threat. I think it unlikely that the Preds fall to 8th to have to face San Jose, who appear to be headed for the first seeding in the playoffs. Though if we were to fall, I would certainly fear for the Preds. Expected outcome – Sharks in 5 (again)
If the Sharks end the season in first, nipping at their heels will be the Chicago Blackhawks. I’m actually more comfortable with this matchup than probably most of my peers are, although I would still like to avoid them if possible. Rinne is a 1-2-0 against Chicago this season, but with a healthy 2.35 GAA and a save percentage of .924, which are really pretty good statistics as a goaltender. Chicago will be going into the first round missing their top offensive threat from the blue-line in Brian Campbell who is out with a broken collarbone. Niemi is as solid a goaltending option as they’re going to have this season. However his record only consists of 32 games so it’s hard to have a gauge on how well he will hold up under the increased pressure of the playoffs. A Chicago matchup would keep travel to a minimum and since they’re a Central division opponent, we are familiar enough with them to compete with them night in and night out. Expected outcome – I honestly believe the Preds would win this one, but it’ll take all 7.
My expected outcome for the Preds this season is to land in 6th, solely because Detroit has been as red-hot as the Preds, and the Wings have more games to gain the ground. Whoever lands in 6th will face the rigorous travel to Vancouver, who will grab the three seed. The Preds went 2-2 against the Canucks this year. Luongo has looked completely ordinary this season, particularly since the Olympic break. The Sedin twins are always a handful, and the Canucks physical style of play would wear down on the veterans in our lineup. With Arnott and Dumont having already missed significant portions of the season this year due to injury, a physical game could significantly hamper the Preds aspirations for a deep run. So to me it breaks down to goaltending and durability. Expected outcome – This could go either way, but I’m gonna let my bias come into play. Preds in 6.
It’s been said time and again, but what a story the Coyotes have been. Predicted by EVERYONE to be competing for the first round draft pick this summer. Instead, they’ve challenged for the Pacific division lead all year on the coat tails of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. GM Don Maloney has built a team around the goaltending, and finally brought in a coach that can get a team playing with a plan. The team has done a phenomenal job of not allowing all of the off-ice turmoil affect the team’s on-ice product. Having surpassed all expectations, this team is playing with house money. The nothing-to-lose attitude can carry them a long way, but can they hold up under in the pressure cooker that is playoff hockey after it has been away from the desert for so long? I’m excited to see what Shane Doan will be able to do with this squad but just don’t see them having enough grit to stand up to the task. Predicted outcome – Preds in 5.
Who would you rather see? And what are your thoughts on my predictions? Hit the comment feed below.