Winter Classic: Predators focused on points to dig out of standings hole

DALLAS — A question was asked to Peter Laviolette on Tuesday that delivered a simple answer from the Predators head coach.

With Nashville having lost three of their previous five games and sitting four points out of a wild card spot, could the Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET; NBC) against the Stars mark a turnaround point for the season? 

No, not in Laviolette’s eyes. For as special as the Winter Classic experience is — this will be his third one — and the importance of the points on the line are against a division rival, there will still be 33 games to play when the final buzzer sounds. Win or lose, it will not make or break Nashville’s season. 

It could, however, serve as the starting point to turn around a first half of the season that’s been up and down.

“Right now, with where we sit in the standings and where they sit, we’re within striking distance, but we’ve still got to play catch up and [Wednesday’s] game is important,” said defenseman Ryan Ellis.

The Predators feature the NHL’s ninth-worst even strength save percentage (.913), per Natural Stat Trick, and their top two scorers are Ellis and captain Roman Josi, who is also tied for the the team lead in goals (14). The offense has been balanced as they’ve averaged 3.45 goals per game and none of their forwards has 30 points yet. 

[LIVESTREAM: COVERAGE BEGINS AT 1 P.M. ET ON NBC]

It’s a roster that was built to contend but they’ve looked anything but that through three months of the season.

So what’s been ailing the Predators? Too many off nights by too many important players.

“I just think consistency, throughout our team, throughout our lineup individually,” said Ellis. “One night we play a game and we dominate, the next night we battle and win or we battle and lose and the next night we take completely off. It’s really a tale of two teams right now. One that can be great and we know how good we are and the other that doesn’t show up some nights. That’s the difference.”

The Winter Classic is always a tricky one for teams. You have to balance enjoying the experience and being around family and friends all while focusing on earning two points. Laviolette’s coached in two of them, so he knew how to prepare his players for what to expect.

“It’s a big game for us. It’s a big opponent for us,” he said. “Just based on the recent history we’ve had with Dallas it makes it really a game that the guys are looking at. We’ve got some work to do. We know they’re a good hockey team and from the playoffs last year and to the previous meeting [4-1 loss on Dec. 14], I think guys realize that. 

“We’ve talked about all these things before we got here, so it’s not like we addressed things today. We talked about our opponent and the situation we’re in and what needs to be done. We also talked about our families being here and how we can try to separate those things. It was a great day today and a great night tonight to share with your families, but those are the things you try to walk through in the preparation for the game [Wednesday] about how you need to wake up and the focus on the details, the determination that’s going to be needed in order to be successful.”

A good start to the season (8-3-1) disappeared quickly and the Predators have dug themselves a hole where they not only need to play well, but they need the teams ahead of them in the standings to drop points along the way. Every game is big now, no matter the situation, and there are no moral victories left for a team that spent big in the summer to make a Stanley Cup run.

“We’re in a position now where playing good isn’t good enough,” said Ellis. “It’s finding the result and winning the game.”

MORE WINTER CLASSIC COVERAGE:
2020 Winter Classic by the numbers
Stars seeking consistency in second half under Bowness

Watch the 2020 NHL Winter Classic between the Nashville Predators and the Dallas Stars at the Cotton Bowl on Wednesday, January 1 at 1 p.m. ET only on NBC, NBC Sports and the NBC Sports app.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Pierre McGuire and Brian Boucher will have the call from the Cotton Bowl. Mike Tirico will host the network’s on-site Winter Classic pre-game coverage alongside the NHL Live studio team of host Kathryn Tappen, and analysts Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp. Tirico will interview members of 1999 Stanley Cup Champion Stars team on-site during intermission of coverage on NBC.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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