Twenty-five games to go. The stretch run. The playoff push.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s here.
Dallas Stars Head Coach Lindy Ruff created some buzz when he declared his team’s overtime battle with the Nashville Predators, “a playoff game.” For those present at Bridgestone Arena on Monday evening, the physicality and intensity in the clubs’ second of five meetings felt a notch or two above a regular-season game.
Following Preds practice on Wednesday, Head Coach Peter Laviolette said the NHL has indeed turned its focus to the next step with the end of the regular season looming.
“We’re getting there now; just listening to quotes from the Dallas and St. Louis game last night, those are two teams sitting way up in the standings and they’re talking about it as a four-point game, so they’re still fighting for something,” Laviolette said. “You have teams that are six, seven, eight points out of a playoff spot and they’re fighting for something… Everything ratchets up, time’s running out, games are slipping away and points are very meaningful, so it ratchets up the intensity.”
Currently in the first Wild Card spot in the Western Conference with 62 points, the Predators final 25 games will feature meetings with 16 teams in playoff positioning as of Wednesday. That kind of stretch against quality opponents is one that will actually benefit Nashville, according to veterans Mike Ribeiro and Barret Jackman and newest Predator forward Ryan Johansen.
“Usually when you play against top teams, you bring your A-game,” Ribeiro said. “We’ve been able to play good games against top teams. I think it’s even easier to get motivated and get ready against teams like that, rather than a bottom team, where you might be thinking it’ll be an easy game and you get caught losing it. [Sixteen games against playoff teams] are going to be a good challenge for us, we seem to play pretty good against good teams.”
“You always want to prepare yourself against the best,” Johansen said. “Sixteen out of our last 25 games are against teams in a playoff spot, and that’s what we want. I think everyone in this room wants that challenge. If you’re going to find a way to win the Stanley Cup, you have to go through the best, so why not play the best teams for the next two months? You can have your level of play where you want it to be that whole time.”
According to Sports Club Stats, a record of 13-9-3 during the next 25 games will provide the Predators a 92.4 percent chance of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while a 16-7-2 mark would be the minimum to lock a berth in the postseason.
Jackman, a participant in nine playoff series with the St. Louis Blues, says the 2015-16 version of the Predators has what it takes to make it to the dance. He, like Ribeiro and Johansen, said facing the Stars and Colorado Avalanche three more times each, along with two more contests versus the Los Angeles Kings, will prove helpful in honing the Predators team game entering the portion of the schedule where things truly matter.
“I think now, coming out of the All-Star Break and leading up to the Trade Deadline is a make-or-break portion of the schedule for a lot of teams,” Jackman said. “There are a lot of decisions for teams if they’re going to be buyers or sellers or stay pat at the trade deadline. I think these games in mid to late February are some of the biggest to choose which direction you go.
“I know we’re a playoff team. We’re a team that’s had some ups and down throughout the year, but we’re a team that’s had some positive games against some good teams.”
Ten of the Preds remaining home games will feature current playoff teams, including the next two in the team’s current home stand - a Thursday-night clash with the Bruins and a Saturday meeting with the Kings. Importance-filled contests like the aforementioned pair are why the Preds are relishing the newly begun stretch run.
“Right now, every game is so big,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “It doesn’t really matter who you play against. It’s usually this time of the year that is so much fun.
“It starts to become more realistic about what’s coming up and it kind of hits you. You don’t want to give up any points and look back and regret it. That’s always your mindset going into the season, but once it gets to this point, you start to see the end. You see game 82 and you start figuring out what games you have to win.”