I hope you enjoyed your break. The Nashville Predators resume play Friday night (at 6 p.m. CT) in Sunrise, Florida, after a well-deserved, nine-day hiatus. The first 52 games of the season included many challenges over four months' time. Through it all, the Predators have endured to put themselves in a solid spot for the stretch run. In many ways, the season is just beginning. Step one is to secure a spot in the postseason in the best position for another run at the Stanley Cup.
Here is what you need to know about the remaining schedule:
30 to Go:
Starting Friday night, the final 30 regular-season games take place over a 65 day stretch - 16 at home and 14 away. The calendar is relatively compressed for all NHL teams, but the Predators are among the clubs that have already played the most games (52) prior to the break, which means more days of rest on the back side. Here are more specifics:
The busiest stretch comes in February, with Nashville playing 14 games over a 26-day span, including three sets of back-to-back games. The good news: travel is limited. Nine of the 14 are at home, plus two of the road games are single "up and back" jaunts to nearby St. Louis.
March contains only one back-to-back set of games, and just one extended road trip out west to face the three California teams. All told, the Preds will play 13 games over a 30-day span in March (five home, eight road).
The conclusion of the regular season will be to play every other day during the first six days of April - a single game trip to Buffalo before finishing with home games with the Canucks and Blackhawks.
In summary, the remaining travel and rest combination is reasonable, and (in my opinion) considerably less taxing than last season.
Strength of Schedule:
Of the 30 games left, here is the degree of difficulty (this is somewhat subjective):
Eight versus teams that are sure playoff teams (again in my opinion), including two at Winnipeg and the season's two meetings with Pittsburgh.
There are 18 games against teams "on the bubble" for a playoff spot. Notable here are three games each against the Wild, Stars and Blues. Sidebar: there was some subjectivity on my part on which teams were classified as "on the bubble." By the time some of the games are played, some of these teams will be in a different category.
Four games are left against teams that are clearly out of the race - two with L.A., a home game with Detroit and the "Fangtastic Finale" versus Chicago.
There are many ways to gage strength of schedule. For one objective look from the outside, the Power Rankings Guru has the Predators with the sixth easiest remaining schedule.
What is Needed?
For this, I consult sportsclubstats.com. Looking at the Predators page, here are some highlights:
If the Predators play ".500 hockey" in the final 30 games (14-14-2), the team would finish with 94 points. According to the site, this gives Nashville a 99.9% chance of being in the playoffs. Right now (this can change) the site projects it taking around 90 points, at minimum, to make the postseason in the West.
100 points (17-11-2) would all but certainly lock up home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. However, that result would give Nashville only a 10 percent chance of winning the Central Division.
To have a legit shot at winning the division, the Predators project to have to win around 20 of their final 30 contests. For example, if Nashville goes 20-7-3 in the last 2 months, that puts them at 107 points, which gives them a 57 percent chance of winning the division. Then, 110 points raises that number to around 80 percent.
To win the Central and get the first seed in the West, it would take a remarkable finish. 113 points gives the Preds about a 50/50 shot at the top seed in the West. To do this, Nashville would have to go 23-4-3 in their last 30. Not impossible, but pretty tough.
Again, this is only an estimate. The picture can change, but this is a good road map for what lies ahead. There is still a long way to go. Remember, the season is just beginning.