NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
This season has not gone as planned for the Nashville Predators.
They enter Sunday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in 10th place in the Western Conference, four points out of a playoff spot, and in the middle an ugly stretch that has seen them lose three out of their previous four games.
It is all very unfamiliar territory for the Predators. After being one of the league’s best teams over the previous five years but always falling just short of climbing to the top of the NHL mountain, they tried to shake things up this season. They dealt from their depth on defense by jettisoning P.K. Subban‘s contract to create salary cap space to add another impact player at forward. Matt Duchene ended up being that player.
On paper, the roster looks like a contender. They still have a deep defense even without Subban thanks to the presence of Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis. And while they may not have a superstar forward, but they are very deep and have seen their offense dramatically improve from where it was a year ago. They are sixth in the league in goals per game, and even though the power play is still not very good, it is not as historically inept as it was a year ago.
The two big issues that have held them back are a lack of a consistency, a struggling penalty kill, and a shocking decline in their goaltending.
The latter issue is no doubt a big driving factor in the first two.
Entering play on Sunday the duo of Pekka Rinne and Jusse Saraos has the second-worst all-situations save percentage in the NHL, ahead of only the Detroit Red Wings’ duo of Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier. In no situation are they worse than on the PK where they have stopped just 79 percent of the shots they have faced, a mark that is by far the worst in the NHL and well below the league average.
Goaltending is always going to be the one position that makes-or-breaks team’s season, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that if Rinne and Saros had spent the first half playing up to their normal levels that the Predators would be in a dramatically different in the standings. That’s also something that should give Predators fans optimism that this season isn’t yet lost. Even though they find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture at the halfway point and a few points back, they still have games in hand and have a lot of key ingredients in place to win. This is a team that is probably significantly better than its record indicates. If their goaltending can ever get itself back in track in the second half this is a team that may not go away quietly given the improved offense.
Now would be a pretty good time for that to start happening.
A four-point deficit in the playoff race may not seem like a huge gap to make up, but only about 20 percent of the teams facing such a deficit at this point in the season actually end up overcoming it. Points are hard to make up in the standings, and games in hand don’t necessarily equate to “wins” in hand. So it’s time for the Predators to try and build on Saturday’s big win in Los Angeles and try to stack some wins together to begin making up that ground, and the schedule certainly creates quite an opportunity for that.
Starting with Sunday’s game in Anaheim, seven of the Predators’ next 10 games for the rest of January are against teams that currently reside in the bottom half of the league standings.
If they are going to get back in the playoff picture and gives themselves a chance to make some noise, that process has to start now.