Marathon runners often describe the 26.2-mile race as a "20-mile warmup for a 10k race." The idea is for the athlete to not peak early during the run and blowout (or "bonk" as they say) before the race is over. To do this, the runner must prepare accordingly and leave fuel in the tank for the final portion of the journey, when the best will separate from the pack.
In many ways this hockey season feels like that for the Nashville Predators. Everything is ratcheting up as the regular season winds down. Speaking of marathons, Predator fans are hoping when this year's Country Music Marathon is run on April 27 (which coincides with the 2019 NFL Draft downtown) their team will be in full stride on their drive toward the ultimate prize. What a weekend that could be!
As we approach the final month of the regular season, let's revisit three themes I have discussed in past blogs:
Pekka Rinne's Workload
Back in December, I discussed the long-term plan to keep 36-year-old Pekka Rinne rested for the postseason by slightly reducing his regular season workload.
Through the twists of the injury-plagued second quarter of the season, followed by their steady, if unspectacular recovery, the Predators have kept the goalie workload between Rinne and Juuse Saros right on schedule.
With 13 games left, Rinne has made 46 starts. Barring injury, that puts him on pace for 53 to 55 on the season. That falls in line with the descending pattern over the last three seasons (66, 61 and 59 starts, respectively). While Rinne has not duplicated his Vezina Trophy season a year ago, he has won five of his last seven starts and is positioned for the stretch run.
Meanwhile, Saros has taken the next step in his development, already hitting career highs in games (27) and wins (15). His future is as bright as ever. With just one set of back-to-back games left, both goalies should get a steady blend of work and rest in the final month.
When the Jets came into Nashville in mid-January, I looked at how evenly matched the two rivals continue to be, and how a possible rematch in Round Two of the playoffs loomed as the NHL Trade Deadline approached.
Fast forward to today, and the picture is basically the same. Here is where things stand:
The surging St. Louis Blues have applied some back pressure on both the Jets and the Preds. Plus, with a favorable schedule they could be in the discussion for first or second in the Central Division. However, they will have to remain on a torrid pace and get some help to pass either or both. That said, they have emerged as a team to be reckoned with in the opening round of the playoffs.
Both Winnipeg and Nashville added significant pieces at the deadline. The Jets traded their first-round pick and a prospect for a second-straight year for the "rental" of a second-line center. Last year, Paul Stastny made a difference (and arguably the difference) in getting past the Preds in Round Two. This year, they will hope Kevin Hayes makes a similar impact.
The Predators are excited about their additions, gaining an upgrade in size and experience with Brian Boyle, Cody McLeod, Mikael Granlund and Wayne Simmonds.
The acquisition of Simmonds two minutes before the deadline passed was particularly intriguing since reportedly the Jets had some interest in the power forward as well.
All of the new Predators are being well received in the locker room. Listen to Simmonds in a recent interview on ESPN 102.5 The Game and you will realize why he was sought after beyond his on-ice skills.
The Remaining Schedule: What Will it Take?
After the All-Star Break and bye week I outlined the remaining schedule for Nashville.
The Predators have gone 9-7-1 since that blog. Here is an update on where things stand:
The remaining schedule (as I pointed out before) contains plenty of rest relative to others. As of Thursday, Nashville had played at least one more game than any other team in the NHL. There is just one set of back-to-back games left.
There are six home games left and seven on the road. There are some tough games remaining. Eight contests are against teams who are either playoff locks or are fighting for a spot (including road games at San Jose, at Winnipeg and at Pittsburgh). Only five are against teams out of the race (including the final three).
The Preds have 83 points after 69 games. From sportsclubstats.com here is (approximately) what it will take for the following scenarios:
92 points would be a virtual certainty to make the playoffs, 94 (or a record of 5-7-1 in their final 13) would be a lock.
98 points (a 7-5-1 finish) gives them an 80-percent chance of earning home ice advantage in the first round. Get to 100 points and that figure climbs to 94 percent.
To win the Central, 103 pts (9-2-2) has them at a 66-percent probability, and 104 moves that number up to 78 percent.
As always, my disclaimer: That is the current picture, and it can change. Keep in mind as of Thursday morning both the Jets and Blues have three games in hand on Nashville. Less rest, but more opportunities for points. One thing is certain: the Predators still have work to do, and they are in position to do it. The 20-mile "warmup" is winding down, and the "10k race" is about to begin!