As far as the numbers are concerned, the Nashville Predators don’t need to collect all of the six points that are available in the final week of the 2015-16 regular season. Mathematically, they don’t even need one.
They’d prefer to not head into the Stanley Cup Playoffs on a losing streak, but their position - the first Wild Card spot in the Western Conference - has already been decided. The three contests this week - at home on Tuesday against Colorado and Thursday versus Arizona, followed by one more trip to Dallas on Saturday - will provide a chance for the Preds to snap their current 0-3-1 skid and to prepare for what could be another two months of hockey to come.
“We need to play a lot better than we [have been],” Head Coach Peter Laviolette said after Nashville’s 50-minute practice Monday at Bridgestone Arena. “Everybody says you want to hit the playoffs on the right note, but with that comes a lot of energy, a lot of execution, a lot of determination; so there’s lots of room for us to get better.”
“We’ve lost four-straight here, so even though it’s clinched and we can’t go up or down, it’s about getting our game in order,” defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “Last year, we limped into the playoffs. We knew we were going to be there after the start we had, but we kind of lost our way, and it didn’t help us in the playoffs. So I think these next few games are about getting our game in order.”
Defenseman Mattias Ekholm views the final week as almost a dress rehearsal of sorts. He and his teammates don’t want to look too far ahead, but they also know it’s important to realize the challenge that awaits. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday will provide the perfect tests.
“I see it as an opportunity, almost like a preseason for the playoffs,” Ekholm said of the week ahead. “We really have to find our groove again, and if we’re going to play like we’ve done the last two games, it’s going to be an early exit. I think we all know it in the room, and I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to work on our game, get those games in before the playoffs and really be able to get the group together again.
“You can’t just flip the switch as the playoffs come, you have to find it. I don’t care if you lose 4-3, as long as the effort is there, and we’re doing the right things. I think that’s going to help us in the playoffs.”
Ellis, Bitetto Nearing Return:
Defensemen Ryan Ellis and Anthony Bitetto participated fully in practice on Monday. Ellis has missed the last two games with an upper-body injury, while Bitetto has been sidelined since March 18 (eight games missed) with a lower-body ailment.
“[We miss him] everywhere,” Head Coach Peter Laviolette said of Ellis. “He’s a complete package, a complete player… We miss a guy like that everywhere. It’s been a good opportunity to get others involved and in the mix and get a look at players, but certainly, we’ll welcome Ryan back when he’s ready.”
“Ellis eats up a lot of minutes, penalty kill, power play and 5-on-5,” Jackman said. “He’s definitely a guy that is counted upon a lot, so when he gets back in the lineup, he’ll be a welcomed addition. [Bitetto] plays with a lot of energy and uses his feet and his instincts very well.”
Ellis explained following Monday’s session he’s unsure if he’ll play in Tuesday’s game versus the Colorado Avalanche, but that he feels good and is ready to return to action. Bitetto voiced a similar diagnosis for himself, but added Game One of the playoffs is the main return date he has circled on his calendar.
“It’s nice to get back on the ice with guys; this is my first injury, so we’re managing it a little bit, just day by day right now,” Bitetto said. “It would be nice to get in a couple games before [the playoffs] to get that game speed back a little bit, but I want to be 100 percent come Game One, so whatever the trainer’s plan is to do that, that’s my goal.”
Pacing the NHL with 196 points from the blue line as a group, Ellis said he’s pleased with how the Predators’ defensive corps has matured and developed across the 79 games to date.
“With any team, you’re going to have injuries, you’re going to have trades. With the addition of [Jackman], we started the season with one new guy in our starting six,” Ellis said. “We were gelling and feeling good. Things are going to happen throughout the year, like when [Shea] Weber got hurt or [Seth] Jones was traded. Different things are going to happen to teams. I feel like we’ve dealt with it fairly well, whether it’s the same lineup or a different lineup, we usually play a similar style. Everyone’s comfortable with each other in here, and it’s been good for us.”
After goaltender Carter Hutton started two consecutive games on Feb. 13 and Feb 15, giving Pekka Rinne his longest respite of the season, Rinne started a month-long stretch where his on-ice statistics paced the League. Not coincidentally, the Predators franchise-record, 14-game point streak accompanied the big Finn’s dominant play.
This past week, Rinne played in all of the Preds four games in six nights, while being pulled in two of them. The last example, sitting during the third period of Nashville’s 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh, was a decision based on the goalie needing some rest, according to Laviolette. The 33-year-old saw 29 shots through 40 minutes of play.
“I thought he was our best player,” Laviolette said of Rinne after Thursday’s game. “It was just it got to four there and just to make a change and look for something else. He’d taken a lot of shots, and there’s been a lot of work going his way… He had to make a lot of saves tonight. A lot of them.”
With Nashville clinching a playoff berth on Friday night, Laviolette decided to give Rinne a bit more time off, starting Hutton against the Sharks. Donning a baseball cap and watching his teammates do battle that night was Rinne’s first game off in more than two weeks.
Rinne said he felt refreshed on Monday, as the final week of the regular season begins. The 6-foot-5 netminder is well aware of the Stanley Cup Playoffs starting on April 13 and explained he feels physically and mentally ready for one of the toughest challenges in sports.
“It’s nice to get a rest, and it should affect me positively,” Rinne said. “I don’t know what my record is after getting rest. But yeah, I feel better and I feel rested… I’m ready for the [playoffs].”
Lines and Injury Notes:
The Preds recalled forward Cody Bass from Milwaukee prior to their practice on Monday morning. Forwards Miikka Salomaki and Gabriel Bourque were absent from Monday’s practice. Laviolette described Salomaki as, “day to day.” The Predators used four players on the fourth line with Austin Watson skating as the extra forward.
| ||Forwards || |
|Calle Jarnkrok ||Ryan Johansen ||James Neal |
|Filip Forsberg ||Mike Ribeiro ||Craig Smith |
|Colin Wilson ||Mike Fisher ||Viktor Arvidsson |
|Eric Nystrom ||Paul Gaustad ||C. Sissons/C. Bass |
Shot of the Day: