NHL on NBCSN: Do Predators have playoff upset potential?

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators. Blackhawks-Predators coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

In going with his “heart instead of his head,” Predators GM David Poile decided not to sell at the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline.

Rather than trading Mattias Ekholm, Mikael Granlund, or even something bolder like moving Ryan Ellis, the Predators did little. Erik Gudbranson may cause debate in some circles, but few expect him to make a revolutionary impact.

For some, it made sense for the Predators not to blow things up. While the Predators aren’t guaranteed to beat out the Blackhawks and Stars for the final Central Division playoff spot, they’re very much in the chase.

But plenty of others will wonder if the Predators, Stars, and Blackhawks are essentially racing to collide with a freight train.

It begs the question, then. If the Predators could outlast the Stars and Blackhawks for a playoff spot, would they have any chance against the Hurricanes, Lightning, or Panthers?

Predators’ best assets for playoff upset potential: luck and Saros

After a loss to the Lightning dropped the Predators to 11-16-1, it seemed like time to sell. Instead, the Predators rattled off a surprising 14-5-0 run, including a 5-2 win vs. the Blackhawks on Monday.

With 28 points, the Predators are tied for third-most in the NHL since March 14, and the Stars needed three more games to get there.

1. Avalanche: 15-1-2 (32 points in 18 games played)
2. Golden Knights: 14-5-1 (29 points in 20 GP)
3t. Predators: 14-5-0 (28 points in 19 GP)
3t. Stars: 11-5-6 (28 points in 22 GP)

So, then, what’s driving this locomotive? Well, it’s a combination of great luck (at least with the puck) and even better goaltending.

[BLACKHAWKS-PREDATORS COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Most obviously, Juuse Saros is saving the Predators’ season. Since March 14, Saros is tied with Philipp Grubauer for the NHL lead with 11 wins, and Saros’ .951 save percentage is easily the best of any goalie getting regular reps (5+ GP). When Pekka Rinne‘s gotten into the action, he’s been almost as impressive, sporting a .939 save percentage in four games.

NHL on NBCSN: Do Predators have playoff upset potential? Ekholm Saros
(Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

All due respect to some great defensemen, but red-hot goalies likely power a penalty kill rate of 88.9% during this hot streak.

Along with that stellar goaltending, the Predators have been shooting at 10.02% at even-strength, fourth-highest in the NHL since March 14.

It’s not surprising that the Predators’ PDO — an imperfect but quick way to spot good luck — is an NHL-best 105.2 since March 14, via Natural Stat Trick.

The bad news

Whether you look at fancy stats or simpler ones, most indicate that the Predators’ play hasn’t really matched that 14-5-0 hot streak.

Since March 14, the Predators have allowed 32.7 shots per game, sixth-most in the NHL, while averaging just 27 shots for (fifth-lowest). Maybe score effects account for some of that disparity, but high-danger chances trend against them, too.

Despite changing from Peter Laviolette to John Hynes, the Predators remain puzzled by their power play. Their power-play percentage during this hotter run (15.6) is actually lower than their full-season percentage (18.3), but either way, it hasn’t been a strength.

Generally speaking, the Predators have been scoring by committee. While Roman Josi ranking second since March 14 is no surprise (12 points in 15 games played), Calle Jarnkrok leading the list is (13 points in 19 GP).

Pondering some variables

Again, that puck luck cannot be totally ignored. Yes, it’s promising to get more out of Mikael Granlund and Eeli Tolvanen, yet both players are shooting at more than 20 percent during this stretch.

But you can also start to picture ways things could look better. Granted, your heart might be influencing your head, yet consider:

  • It’s possible Saros could stay at least close to this hot for a while. RFA or not, he’s aiming for a big raise from $1.5M AAV.
  • Pekka Rinne could conceivably save the day if something happens with Saros. Yes, he’s 38, but he’s also a pending free agent. Maybe Rinne wants a couple more shots at a big run?
  • The Predators dealt with injuries before and during this run. Filip Forsberg and Ryan Ellis both only played six games since March 14. If Forsberg, Ellis, and others can get healthy, perhaps they’d offset some of the luck that might cool off?
  • Hey, refs tend to put away their whistles more often during the playoffs. That could alleviate some of the Predators’ power play concerns. Or maybe Nashville could merely become … adequate there?
  • A trio of Josi, Ellis, and Ekholm still ranks as one of the best in the NHL.

Now, do those factors make the Predators a wise upset pick if they land in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs? Don’t bet your mortgage on it.

They’re probably most likely to cool off in a big way, especially if they continue to get out-chanced like they were when Saros was standing on his head.

Again, though, stranger things have happened, and so have bigger upsets.

To have a chance, the Predators need to continue to take care of business against teams like the Blackhawks, who have dark horse aspirations of their own.

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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    Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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    The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

    Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

    John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

    TORTS REFORM

    Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

    “I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

    Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

    BIG MO

    The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

    The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

    “He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

    PLAYOFF ROTATION

    Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

    Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

    “I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

    The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

    “He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

    The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

    “This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

    LAMBERT ISLAND

    Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

    Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

    “Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

    MORE NEW VOICES

    The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

    Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

    The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

    Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

    “He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

    Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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    Harry How/Getty Images
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    CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

    The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

    The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

    The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.