With their victory in Washington on March 28, the Nashville Predators clinched a playoff berth, the eighth time they have managed to do so in 11 seasons. That’s a record of consistency interrupted by the previous two campaigns.
The interesting thing to consider here is: What caused them to fall out of the playoff picture during those two seasons?
2012-13 Nashville Predators:
The abbreviated 2012-13 team (the lockout-shortened season started on Jan. 19) never had a chance when you examine the stats. The previous season, when the Preds went two playoff rounds (knocking off Detroit in Nicklas Lidstrom’s last go-round, before losing to the Coyotes in the second), they were fifth overall in the League. That success was built on having the top power play in the NHL, which gave them the eighth-best offensive numbers overall. The 2011-12 team was also 10th in goals-against. All of those are great indicators of success, and they proved to be just that.
The following season, in 48 games, the Predators had all the negative indicators: tied for last offensively (the power play dropped off to 17th), defensively, they fell from 10th to 20th and their penalty kill was next-to-last. David Legwand led the team with 12 goals. Gabriel Bourque was next, with 11 in 34 games played, and Mike Fisher had 10 in 38; Shea Weber and Nick Spaling were next with nine. Patric Hornqvist was only able to play in half the schedule.
The 2012-13 Predators began the season 7-3-4, but finished 9-20-5 for a 16-23-9 final mark. They rallied to a 15-14-8 record, but then lost 10 of their final 11 (1-9-1).
2013-14 Nashville Predators:
Gone from the team when training camp began in September of 2013 were: goaltender Chris Mason (to Europe); forwards Martin Erat (traded with Michael Latta to Washington in the Filip Forsberg deal at the 2013 trade deadline), Sergei Kostitsyn (to the Kontinental Hockey League), Matt Halischuk (free agent signee by Winnipeg), Bobby Butler (traded to Florida), Brandon Yip (free agent with the Coyotes) and Chris Mueller (free agent with Dallas). Defensemen Hal Gill (free agent to Philadelphia) and Jon Blum (signed by Minnesota) were also gone.
The structure for making the playoffs changed for the full season following that shortened schedule. The League was split into two divisions in each conference. The Eastern Conference had two eight-team divisions, the Western Conference two seven-team divisions. The top three teams in each division made the playoffs, along with two Wild Card teams in each conference. Previously, with three divisions in each conference, it was simply the best eight records that made it and they were seeded accordingly.
The Predators had to overcome a lot in 2013-14 – most notably the infection that hit goaltender Pekka Rinne after their second trip to Minnesota. He underwent surgery and was not available for the next 51 games. Somehow, they managed to go 21-21-9 without him and stayed in the race.
Nashville used four goaltenders during Rinne’s absence: Carter Hutton, Magnus Hellberg, Marek Mazanec and Devan Dubnyk. Hutton had only played in one NHL game before the season, but he fared well, going 13-10-4 with Rinne unavailable (and 20-11-4 overall). 22-year-old Magnus Hellberg played just a portion of one period. Mazanec, also 22 that season, was a very competitive 8-10-4 with 2.80 goals-against and .902 save percentage.
Dubnyk, acquired in a January trade with Edmonton (for summer free-agent signee forward, Matt Hendricks), bore no resemblance to the goaltender he has been this season with Arizona and (especially) Minnesota. In 124 minutes, he only stopped 85 percent of the shots he faced.
After Rinne returned, the Preds went 12-7-2, taking six of their final seven games to fall three points behind the Dallas Stars for the last playoff spot (with the Coyotes in-between). In circumstances like that, you realize that two more wins would have done the job.
The team was not offensively robust; finishing tied for 18th in goals, but did have four 20-goal men (Craig Smith 24, Shea Weber 23, Patric Hornqvist 22 and Mike Fisher with 20). Eric Nystrom was next with 15 (including the first four-goal game in team history, at Calgary).
That frustrating season brought about another rebuild, some of which included the maturation of the team’s younger players.
Hornqvist and Spaling were dealt to Pittsburgh at the Draft for sniper James Neal. Olli Jokinen was signed to help out at center. Shortly thereafter came the news that Fisher had ruptured his Achilles tendon; that resulted in a search for even more depth at center.
On July 15, Derek Roy signed a free-agent deal after his time with Buffalo, Dallas, Vancouver and St. Louis. On the same day, Mike Ribeiro was signed to a one-year contract after the Coyotes had bought him out.
Ribeiro remains, and he has been a key to the Predators offensive success, centering the first line. His smooth passing skills and poise have been a great help to his former Dallas teammate James Neal, along with the rookie sensation Forsberg and Craig Smith.
Fisher’s late-November (ahead of schedule) return to the lineup also provided a spark to both the powerplay and penalty kill. He centers the second line and should be credited a great deal for Colin Wilson’s first 20-goal season. On a per-game basis, this is Fisher’s best goal-scoring season (he previously had 25 for the Ottawa Senators in 2009-2010).
While the team’s offensive production has fallen off from a fast start, one thing that hasn’t changed over the course of the year is the team’s resilience. They have been particularly strong in games decided by one goal and there have been quite a few of those. As of this writing, 57.7 percent of their games have been decided by the slimmest of margins.
If anything became absolutely clear in this season’s success, it’s how important Pekka Rinne is. With apologies to the late Marvin (“The Human Eraser”) Webster of ABA/NBA fame, Rinne has been able to correct a number of mistakes and kept the team in the Top Five in goals-against all season.
And there are the reasons why this team made the playoffs!