In fourth place in the Discover Central Division Standings with a two-point lead on the fifth-place Chicago Blackhawks, the Nashville Predators’ playoff spot is anything but assured, especially when you consider that the Blackhawks and sixth place Dallas Stars have games in hand. However, with streaking goaltender Juuse Saros leading the charge and a favorable remaining schedule, the Predators can approach this final stretch as the favorites for that final postseason berth.
The other three playoff spots are already accounted for, with the Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panthers all 10 points or more ahead of the Predators, which means one of them will be the first-round opponent for the team that secures the fourth spot.
The NHL realignment means Nashville will have to face a team that usually plays in the Eastern Conference. The Predators have never played the Hurricanes, Panthers, or Lightning in a playoff series, so any matchup here would be the beginning of a new tale in a season that has provided us with endless storylines. They will also have to beat two of these teams for a chance at the Stanley Cup as the first two rounds of the playoffs are intra-divisional.
Here’s a look at how the Predators stack up against each of their possible first-round opponents.
The Predators have had a tough time against the Hurricanes this season, with an 0-5-1 record and two games remaining on the schedule. They have scored a combined nine goals across those six games and have been outplayed in all six games. They’ve had trouble controlling Carolina’s relentless attack, and they have struggled to outmaneuver the Hurricanes’ very mobile defence core led by Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton. Even as the Predators get healthy again, the ‘Canes are a deeper team with more top-end talent to boot. They are built to win in the playoffs as much as the regular season.
Only one game this season featured a Saros vs Petr Mrazek goaltending battle though both goalies will likely get the start come playoff time. James Reimer stonewalled the Predators in three games to the tune of a 1.66 goals-against average (GAA). All three of the Canes’ goalies have been good this season, especially the youngster Alex Nedeljkovic who has turned it on of late. Regardless of who tends the twine for the Hurricanes in the playoffs, the Predators will hopefully avoid this matchup and won’t have to find out if they could pull out a seven-game series win.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The defending Stanley Cup champs won’t be an easy out, but it would be tougher if they’re healthy. They brought in David Savard at the trade deadline, and the depth in their system is thriving with their next-man-up mentality. Ross Colton has especially turned heads with the highest goals/60 stat in the NHL (minimum five games played). The team is without Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Jan Rutta, while others have recently returned from long absences.
Nashville dropped the first five meetings between the two teams but won the most recent matchup. The April 13 game saw the Predators steamroll the Lightning 7-2, but it won’t be that easy in the playoffs as the Predators lucked into a game against backup Curtis McElhinney. Even though the win didn’t come against former Vezina Trophy-winner Andrei Vasilevskiy, Nashville showed that they can control a game against this Lightning roster. If the Predators have any hope of winning against the Lightning, they’d be better meet them sooner than later, as Tampa Bay will only become tougher to beat as they get healthier.
Few expected the Panthers to be up at the top of the division this season after they lost some offensive firepower in the offseason, but everything seems to have clicked for them. Unfortunately, they recently lost their number one defenceman Aaron Ekblad for the season, as well as their top-scoring winger in Carter Verhaeghe who has an upper-body injury and is listed as week-to-week. Florida has lost four of their last six games without the duo.
The Predators have a losing 2-4 record against the Panthers this season. However, now that Florida is banged up, they are ripe for an upset. Working in the Predators’ favor here as well is that the Panthers don’t have the same depth as the Lightning or the Hurricanes, and given Nashville’s top-heavy defense pairings, a team with one or two lines is a lot easier to shut down than a team with three or four.
Predators Playoff Outlook
It looks like the best route through the postseason would be for the Predators to face the Lightning in the first round before they get rolling with a healthy roster. Nashville’s second best matchup would be the Panthers. The Hurricanes seem like the toughest of the three teams, but they will need to beat two of them if they want to raise another banner as the division champions. However, despite being playoff underdogs, the Preds’ sights are set a little higher than just a divisional banner this year, and anything less than a Stanley Cup Final berth will force a good look in the mirror once the offseason rolls around. The quest for the fourth playoff spot in the Central, and an underdog Stanley Cup run begins Monday night when they begin a three-game mini-series against the Blackhawks.
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