The Nashville Predators’ road trip is coming to a close tomorrow. From two embarrassing shutouts to two consecutive shootout victories, the team has been up and down an emotional roller coaster. Its fans back home, staying up late into the night to watch the West Coast games, have ridden right along with it.
The difference between winning and losing for Nashville this season has been razor-thin. The team’s record stands at 3-2-3 for the moment, a big relief after winning just one of the first six games of the season. Change the outcome of just a handful of plays, though, and they could just as easily be 6-2-0 or even or 1-2-6.
The points the Predators have picked up in the shootout losses will be handy at the end of the season, but the real key at the end of the season will be how often they’ve let their opponents pick up those same extra points. For a demonstration of why that is, we need go no further back than the 2008-09 season.
The spread between sixth place (92 points) and 10th place (88 points) in the Western Conference that season was just four points. Nashville finished short of the final playoff spot by just three points, the first (and since then only) time the Predators have missed the post-season since 2002-03.
Of the 16 games Nashville played that season against the bottom three playoff teams (the St. Louis Blues, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Anaheim Ducks), eight went to overtime or a shootout. Nashville won half of those. The cause of the Predators’ playoff absence lies somewhere between the four points awarded to Nashville’s opponents for losing in overtime and the four points they missed themselves in their losses.
One of the key losses for the Preds that year was a mid-March 4-3 overtime defeat to the Anaheim Ducks. Nashville took one unnecessary penalty with less than 10 minutes left and the game tied at 2-2. The Ducks converted to take the lead; after tying the game in the third, Nashville lost in overtime while killing off another penalty. The Predators missed out on both a win and a chance to keep Anaheim from getting points, which in the end contributed heavily to the three-point difference between the two teams after 82 games.
In the Preds’ shootout win against San Jose last Saturday, Nashville led 1-0 with just 7:34 remaining and looked more than capable of closing the game out in the same gritty style they’d played so successfully up to that point. Then Colin Wilson played the puck while leaving the ice at the end of his shift. Craig Smith served the penalty for too many men on the ice, and Martin Havlat beat Pekka Rinne on the power play to tie the game.
There is no guarantee the Preds would have held the lead in the San Jose game to win in regulation. However, their chances of doing so would’ve been a lot better if they had been playing 5-on-5. Similarly, there is no guarantee that Nashville will make the playoffs this season, but improving their management of potential extra-point situations will make a big difference when it comes time to hand out seedings.