2010-2011 NHL season preview: Nashville Predators

sheaweber2.jpgLast season: (47-29-6, 100 points, 3rd in Central Division, 7th in Western Conference) Each and every year, people try to count out the Predators and each and every year they seem to make the playoffs. For a team that’s gotten the runaround when it comes to rumors about being moved and talk of financial instability, the Predators take care of business pretty well. A hard first-round battle with the Blackhawks left the Predators without a series win, but putting the scare of a lifetime into the eventual Stanley Cup champions is something to hang your hat on.

Head coach: Barry Trotz enters his 12th season as head coach. He’s the only coach the franchise has ever known and that consistency at the top of the organization helps Nashville stay in the hunt year in and year out. The system never changes, what’s expected is always known, and players all ideally know where they stand within the organization. Taking a team from their days as an expansion franchise to where they’re consistently a difficult team to deal with is an impressive feat. That said, more is demanded from the fans in Nashville and winning a playoff round or two would go a long way towards solidifying hockey’s hold in Music City.

Key departures: F Jason Arnott, F Dustin Boyd, D Dan Hamhuis, D Denis Grebeshkov, G Dan Ellis. Losing Hamhuis and Grebeshkov are tough blows for the defense, meanwhile Arnott’s departure was to help free up room salary-wise. Ellis’ departure opened up competition for the backup job as Pekka Rinne’s hold on the starting job was permanent.

Key arrivals: F Matt Lombardi, F Sergei Kostitsyn, D Ryan Parent, D Aaron Johnson, G Anders Lindback. Adding Lombardi was a coup for the Preds. After his big year in Phoenix his salary demands were higher than expected and he came to Nashville as a relative steal. Kostitsyn arrives looking to shake off negative opinions on his game earned in Montreal. Parent returns to Nashville to help solidify the defensive unit. Lindback is making his North American debut as Rinne’s backup.

Under pressure:  This might come off as unfair, but the most pressure is on Trotz. After all, the team still hasn’t won in the playoffs. They’ve been the prototypical really tough team for Cup competitors to face in the first round and beating the Predators in the playoffs has been the spark that both Chicago and Detroit needed on their way to winning their most recent Stanley Cups. At some point, the Predators need to stop being the tough team to face in the first round and become the team that stuns someone big on their way to making a deep run in the playoffs.

pekkarinne2.jpgProtecting the house: The Predators have handed the reins over to Rinne. After dueling with Ellis last season to see who would come out on top, Rinne’s stellar play over the inconsistent Ellis ensured that the job would be his. How much work Rinne sees this season will be interesting to watch as some suspect he’ll be the next goalie to join the 60+ starts society. Should that not pan out, Lindback will be there supporting him. Lindback was the Preds’ seventh round pick in 2008 and he played well in Sweden the last two seasons and impressed enough in training camp to win the backup job. If Rinne struggles, it’ll be interesting to see what Lindback can do in a bigger role than expected.

On defense, captain Shea Weber leads a very able and capable crew. Ryan Suter, Francois Bouillon, Ryan Parent, Cody Franson, Aaron Johnson and Kevin Klein round out a gang of seven that will play things tight to the vest. Losing Hamhuis to free agency was a tough blow, but bringing back Parent and getting more minutes from Franson should help offset his play.

Top line we’d like to see: Steve Sullivan-Lombardi-Patric Hornqvist is what we’d like to see. Sullivan is the veteran scorer leading the way, while Lombardi is the new guy coming off a hot season and Hornqvist is the big body with the goal-scoring touch in front of the net. It’s a bit of the past, present, future motif we’ve seen with other teams, except this one isn’t quite as drastic. The Preds need goal scoring and a line like this will make it happen with Sullivan’s ability to slice in and out of traffic, Lombardi’s ability to make things happen and Hornqvist blocking the goalie’s view.

Oh captain, my captain: You couldn’t ask for a guy who sets a better example of what the Predators are all about than Weber. He’s big, he’s talented, he flies under the radar for mainstream popularity — he’s the human embodiment of the Predators. He’s also playing the game with the kind of tenacity that Trotz wants out of everyone.

jordintootoo2.jpgStreet fighting man: There’s ideally a pair of candidates here. One guy does actual fighting (Wade Belak) and the other makes everyone want to fight him (Jordin Tootoo). If Belak gets into a game, you can guarantee him dropping the gloves. With Tootoo running around all game you’ll have a lot of ticked off players on the opposing team. Fact is, the Predators aren’t really a fighting team. They were third from the bottom in fighting majors last season and Belak was their runaway leader with 10 and he didn’t even play that often. Any fans that believe that fighting hockey is what’s selling in Nashville are greatly mistaken.

Best-case scenario: Hornqvist builds off his 30-goal season and adds a few more than that this time around. Lombardi builds off his big season in Phoenix to give the Predators a legitimately lethal offensive first line. Martin Erat finds a way to pot more than his customary 20-25 goals, while J.P. Dumont models his game more after Hornqvist and becomes an effective net presence. Colin Wilson becomes a breakout star and puts home 25 goals. Rinne turns into the real deal and has a Vezina-worthy season in goal while Weber and Suter become the defensive pairing for the next generation leading the Predators deeper into the playoffs than they’ve ever been before — the second round.

Worst-case scenario: Lombardi isn’t able to replicate his production from last season while Hornqvist struggles under the weight of expectation. Sullivan and Erat see their goal totals level off and the offense sputters again. Rinne tires out trying to carry the Predators. Defensive inconsistency also sets in and the Predators just miss the playoffs.

Keeping it real: I know, you want to count the Predators down and out, but let’s face it, they’re always going to be there and the team did take some strides forward last season. Rinne will be very good and Lombardi’s addition should pan out well. Getting a little something more from lifetime Predator David Legwand would be great as well. All in all, this team will be tough as always and go through fits where they look like they could be really tough in the playoffs and others where they look completely pedestrian. They’ll be a playoff team once again and the key for them is to finally get out of the first round. Whether they can do that or not is up in the air.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Predators are a perfect 3. They’re going to be a playoff team and from there anything can shake loose. I’m not one to hold a team’s past against them and assume that they’d be a ‘one round and done’ team but the team doesn’t immediately jump out at me as a Cup contender. That doesn’t mean they aren’t one, they’re just not at the top of the list. Last year proved that just about anything can happen in the playoffs, but times are tougher in the Western Conference and the road to the finals is always a bit tougher.

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    NHL Playoff Push: Another huge day ahead for Western Conference race

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    Entering play on Sunday there are six teams in the Western Conference that fighting for three playoff spots (the third spot in the Pacific Division, both Wild Cards). Those teams are all separated by just four points.

    Five of those teams are in action on Sunday.

    First, here is a look at how the standings look entering the day.

    The Kings lost on Saturday to New Jersey and failed to gain any ground on the rest of the pack, while the Blues were able to get a huge win against the New York Rangers and set up another big game for them on Sunday night when they visit the Chicago Blackhawks. You can catch that game on NBCSN at 7:30 p.m. ET.

    On Sunday the Avalanche are hosting a Detroit team that is just circling the drain down the stretch and have a great opportunity to pick up two more huge points. The other Wild Card team at the moment, Dallas, is trending in the wrong direction down the stretch having won just five of their past 16 games. They are in Winnipeg on Sunday to play a Jets team that has one of the most powerful offenses in the league.

    The Ducks, meanwhile, who can climb into the third spot in the Pacific Division with a point on Sunday, are hosing the Devils team that knocked off the Kings on Saturday.

    The other team in that mix is Calgary. The Flames are the team that probably have the longest odds in this group, sitting four points back with all of the aforementioned teams sitting ahead of them. They are in Vegas to take on one of the best home teams in the league this season. The Flames, for what it is worth, have been one of the absolute best road teams. Given the standings and deficit they are facing the Flames have almost no margin for error the rest of the way.

    [The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

    In the East, New Jersey has a chance to to move up a couple of spots in the standings with a win and some help.

    A Devils win in Anaheim, combined with a Flyers loss to the Washington Capitals, would put the Devils into the third spot in the Metropolitan Division. Even if the Flyers win and maintain their hold on the No. 3 spot in the Metro the Devils could still leapfrog the Blue Jackets for the first Wild Card spot.

    The other game in the Eastern Conference on Sunday with playoff implications is Tampa Bay hosting the Edmonton Oilers.

    The Lightning have seen its lead in the Atlantic Division dwindle down to just two points after losing to the Boston  Bruins on Saturday night while the Bruins still have a game in hand. The Lightning could reclaim that four point lead with a win. The Oilers have been playing a bit better as of late, thanks almost entirely to Connor McDavid making a late season push for the scoring title.

    If The Playoffs Started Today

    Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
    Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
    Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers
    Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

    Nashville Predators vs. Dallas Stars
    Vegas Golden Knights vs. Colorado Avalanche
    Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
    San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

    Sunday’s Key Games

    Detroit Red Wings vs. Colorado Avalanche, 3 p.m. ET
    Calgary Flames vs. Vegas Golden Knights, 4 p.m. ET
    Edmonton Oilers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 5 p.m. ET
    Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 5 p.m. ET
    St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks, 7:30 p.m. ET
    Dallas Stars vs. Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m ET
    New Jersey Devils vs. Anaheim Ducks, 9 p.m. ET

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    NHL On NBCSN: Blues look to continue playoff push against Blackhawks

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    NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Sunday night when the St. Louis Blues take on the Chicago Blackhawks. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET. You can catch all of the action on NBCSN or on our Live Stream.

    The St. Louis Blues are one of the many teams in the middle of the free-for-all playoff race that is the Western Conference and are in desperate need of wins. They got a huge one on Saturday night by defeating the New York Rangers in overtime, and now they need to come back 24 hours later and try to get another one when they visit the Chicago Blackhawks.

    The only downside to Saturday’s win is that star winger Vladimir Tarasenko left the game due to an injury.

    His status for Sunday is uncertain at this point, but it would obviously be a pretty significant blow to the Blues’ lineup if he is unable to go.

    He is the team’s leading goal-scorer (27) and is second in total points with 57, trailing only the 59 that Brayden Schenn has.

    The Blues enter the day three points out of a wild card spot in the Western Conference and have a chance to pick up a couple of more points in that race if they can knock off a Blackhawks team that is, if we are being completely honest, going in the tank down the stretch.

    After losing to Buffalo on Saturday the Blackhawks are just 8-18-2 in their past 28 games.

    This is one of three games that the Blues have remaining with the Blackhawks down the stretch.

    St. Louis has been through a pretty tumultuous couple of weeks recently. It is a stretch that included a pretty significant collapse in the standings, a major trade (Paul Stastny), and some significant injuries. But they are still alive in the playoff race, barely, thanks to wins in three of their past four games.

    They desperately need another one on Sunday night.


    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    The Buzzer: Shutouts for three, Dubnyk gets win No. 200

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    Players of the Night:

    Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins, Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey Devils and Curtis McElhinney, Toronto Maple Leafs: Where do we begin on the night of the shutout? Rask didn’t have a particularly busy night making 23 saves, but when you’re facing names like Kucherov and Stamkos, it’s always dangerous. Still, Rask kept rolling along. He is 27-3-2 in his past 32 starts. That’s just silly. … Kinkaid, meanwhile stopped 38 — including 19 in the first period — in a 3-0 win against the Kings for his fourth career shutout. … No Frederik Andersen for Toronto? No problem. McElhinney stepped in and pitched a 33-save performance as the Leafs down the Montreal Canadiens 4-0.

    Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues: The Blues defenseman scored twice in regulation and then assisted on Brayden Schenn‘s overtime winner to cap off a three-point night.

    Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild: While he didn’t get a shutout, Dubnyk did stop 30 of 31 en route to his 200th career NHL win. The win was also important for the Wild, who moved to within five points of the Winnipeg Jets for second place in the Central Division, and moved five points ahead of the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche for third place.

    Highlights of the Night:

    Filthy pass:

    First-goal celebrations are always the best:

    Voracek with a slick move in front:

    Save of the year candidate:

    Factoids of the Night:

    Home is where the wins are:

    A legend passes a legend:

    Believe in McJesus:

    Scary Scenes of the Night:


    Sabres 5, Blackhawks 3

    Oilers 4, Panthers 2

    Devils 3, Kings 0

    Maple Leafs 4, Canadiens 0

    Bruins 3, Lightning 0

    Flyers 4, Hurricanes 2

    Blue Jackets 2, Senators 1

    Blue 4, Rangers 3 (OT)

    Wild 3, Coyotes 1

    Sharks 5, Canucks 3

    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

    Senators’ Ryan Dzingel drilled in the head with a puck (video)

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    We already saw one lacerated leg, and now we have a one-timer drilling a player in the back of the helmet.

    Saturday night hasn’t been so kind.

    Ottawa Senators forward Ryan Dzingel was forced to leave the game after some friendly fire against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 2-1 loss.

    Dzingel was drilled in the back of the head from teammate Mike Hoffman‘s one-timer of the back of his helmet around the mid-way point of the third period.

    Dzingel remained down for a time but was able to skate off the ice with some assistance from Ottawa’s trainers.

    He did not return to the game.

    If you watch this closely, you will see Dzingel’s No. 8 on the back of his helmet fly off after contact with the puck.


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck