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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