On Feb. 17, Nashville whipped San Jose 5-1 to move to 39-12-6, the best record in the league. With 84 points, the Preds had a comfortable lead atop the NHL and Central Division standings.
How times have changed.
Since that win, Nashville has gone 4-9-2 and lost its hold on both. Last night’s 3-2 OT loss to Minnesota gave a startling example of how much the Preds have struggled; on Jan. 13, Minnesota trailed Nashville by 21 (yes, twenty-one) points in the standings.
With last night’s win, the Wild had trimmed it to nine.
“It’s frustrating for everybody,” head coach Peter Laviolette told the Tennessean. “At the end of the night, you’ve got to win games.”
“We’re not playing the right way to close out games right now,” added veteran forward Matt Cullen. “And we’ve got 10 games to figure it out.”
So, what’s wrong with the Preds? Three things to consider…
1. Neal, Ribeiro and Forsberg have gone cold.
Ice cold, in fact. After combining to form one of the NHL’s top lines through the first few months, James Neal, Mike Ribeiro and Filip Forsberg have been split up, put back together, split up again… and now Neal’s out, having missed the last three games with an upper-body ailment.
Even before the Neal injury, though, there were signs of trouble. Neal had just one goal in his last 11 games, Forsberg only has five points in his last 16 and Ribeiro has just three points in his last 11. Yes, the Preds are one of the league’s most well-balanced scoring teams — eight guys have 13 goals or more — but it’s clear that a good portion of the team’s success relies on the production of the “Big Three.”
2. They’re no longer dominating at home.
For most of this season, Bridgestone Arena has been an extremely difficult place for opponents. En route to racing out to the aforementioned 39-12-6 start, the Preds went a remarkable 25-3-1 at home — securing 51 of a possible 58 points — and their three regulation losses came against very good opponents in Anaheim, Chicago and Pittsburgh.
Lately, though, things have turned.
Tuesday’s loss to the Wild was Nashville’s fifth straight at home, its longest skid of the season. Over that stretch, the Preds have allowed 18 goals — 3.6 per game, well above their season average of 2.8 — and defenseman Roman Josi suggested part of the problem is Nashville’s failure to play a full 60 minute game.
“The last periods just have to be better,” Josi said, per the team website. “We have to go after the goal and not take a step back. We have to find a way to win these games. It is all about winning in this league.
“You don’t get points just for playing well. We have to bear down and get two points.”
3. They’ve become the hunted.
A 75/1 longshot to win the Stanley Cup at the beginning of the season, the Preds were, for quite some time, the NHL’s biggest surprise story… but surprises wear off. Around the same time they raced to the top of the NHL standings, the Preds began to be a target for other teams, like Central Division rival Chicago.
Back in mid-February, ‘Hawks d-man Brent Seabrook made mention of the fact his team was targeting Nashville, and how “difficult” it was to make up ground.
“They seem to be winning every game,” Seabrook explained.
“It’s going to be tough,” Kris Versteeg added, when asked about catching the Preds. “They’re rolling.”
Both the ‘Hawks and the Blues have managed to erase Nashville’s once-commanding lead in the Central. Heading into Wednesday night’s action, St. Louis, who trailed by nine points on Feb. 26, is now one point up with two games in hand; Chicago, meanwhile, trails by just four with three in hand.