Tough road ahead for Predators

The Nashville Predators have been doing an admirable job rolling with the punches so far in 2018-19.

For one thing, they’ve dealt with some serious injuries. P.K. Subban‘s missed a lot of time, with the hope that he’ll be back soon. They’ve often been without two-thirds of their top line, as injuries have also struck Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson.

You also wonder if there’s at least a slight threat of complacency, as most fans and onlookers are more interested in how they fare in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs after seeing them win a Presidents’ Trophy last season and reach the 2017 Stanley Cup Final the year before.

It’s a testament to Peter Laviolette, David Poile, Pekka Rinne, Roman Josi, and other key figures that the Predators remain neck-and-neck with the healthier Winnipeg Jets for the Central Division lead, as Nashville only trails Winnipeg by a single standings point.

Unfortunately, that gap could grow in the near future, and with the Colorado Avalanche hovering just two points behind them, the Predators risk some slippage heading into 2019.

While there’s some optimism about Subban maybe returning soon, the Predators may be without Arvidsson and Forsberg for quite a bit longer, which is troubling because Nashville’s mostly on the road until mid-January.

Disconcertingly, the Predators began a road-heavy run with losses to what looks like two non-playoff teams, as they fell 4-3 in OT to Ottawa on Monday, then suffered a 2-1 regulation loss to Chicago on Tuesday. Things only get bumpier from there, including Thursday’s game against a potentially rejuvenated Flyers team in Philly:

Thu., Dec. 20: at Philadelphia
Sat., Dec. 22: at Boston
Thu., Dec. 27: home vs. Dallas
Sat., Dec. 29: home vs. Rangers
Mon., Dec. 31: at Washington
Tues., Jan. 1: home vs. Philadelphia
Thu., Jan. 4: at Detroit
Fri., Jan. 5: at Montreal
Sun., Jan. 7: at Toronto
Tue., Jan. 9: at Chicago
Wed., Jan. 10: at Columbus
Sat., Jan. 13: at Carolina

That’s nine of their next 12 games on the road, which isn’t super-promising since Nashville’s stout at Bridgestone Arena (14-5-0) but more ordinary away from home (8-6-2). The Predators also face three back-to-back sets to close out 2018 and begin 2019.

This isn’t to say the sky is falling. Arvidsson is skating, so perhaps he’ll be able to play during a portion of those games, potentially giving Nashville a significant shot in the arm. It’s also true that there’s a holiday break in that mix, which (ideally) would help alleviate some of the struggles. Also, 8-6-2 isn’t a world-beating road record, but it’s not the sort of mark that would lead you to believe that the Predators will totally fall apart.

There might be smaller, subtler impacts that eventually matter, however.

The Avalanche are only two points behind the Predators (both with 35 games played), and they’ll eventually get more home games than road, as they’ve played 20 away from home and just 15 in Colorado so far in 2018-19.

This opens up an uneasy scenario for Nashville: Colorado may very well make up enough ground so that the Avs get the second seed in the Central, not Nashville. That might not sound like a big deal, but remember that a) the high elevation could already give the Avalanche a larger home-ice advantage than usual and b) an additional home game could help Colorado engineer easier matchups for their deadly top line, even if it would be for four games if a best-of-seven went the distance, rather than three.

Of course, a lot can change as the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs approach. The Jets could be the ones slipping, or a different Central team could make a meteoric rise.

Still, in a league of considerable parity – and an NHL where fates can sometimes turn on a dime, like we’ve seen with teams like the Kings and Sabres – it can be interesting to pinpoint potential fork-in-the-road moments.

The Predators have passed plenty of tests to show that they’re a legitimate contender in the modern NHL, so maybe this will just be another hurdle that they’ll clear. Even so, we may learn quite a bit about the 2018-19 edition of this team over the next few weeks.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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