After the Nashville Predators lost Patric Hornqvist to injury against the Anaheim Ducks two weeks ago, Barry Trotz told the media that the next game – and every game thereafter – would be the team’s biggest game of the year. Despite a bump in the road against Phoenix, the Preds have responded in unexpectedly excellent fashion, compiling a four-game winning streak and moving into second place in the Central Division.
With all that in mind, the two games this weekend – against the Minnesota Wild (4-5-1) and Chicago Blackhawks (9-0-2) – will be the biggest test the Predators have faced yet this season. Obviously, the objective in both games is to win. But the importance of a win in each of the two games is completely different.
In Minnesota tonight the Predators have a chance to lock up a season series victory against the Wild, whom they play just three times this season. When the schedule was first released the Preds-Wild matchup that most of the media latched onto was the meeting in March when Ryan Suter will return to Bridgestone Arena. That game could be rendered mostly meaningless with a win tonight in game where the Predators should be considerable favorites.
If they can beat Minnesota, Nashville would gain a permanent leg up on one of the teams they need to beat to make the playoffs. They would also hand the Wild their fourth straight loss, sending Minnesota fans into a panicked frenzy. As for giving Nashville fans an extra helping of schadenfreude for Suter and Craig “Winning” Leipold, that would just be an added bonus.
On Sunday against Chicago, the Preds face an entirely different challenge. The Blackhawks have been the class of the NHL so far, compiling a record that already has them roughly 40 percent of the way to the number of points needed for a playoff spot. They’ve scored 39 goals, a mark matched only by the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning. Their defense ranks fourth in the league in goals against, and their penalty kill is number one in the NHL with a 92.7 percent success rate.
Nashville’s defense has been the best in the league this season, surrendering a paltry 1.80 goal per game. And Pekka Rinne has been in All-Star form for the last four games in particular, surging into the Central Division lead for saves, save percentage, and GAA. Taking on the Blackhawks will be a test of just how locked-in Pekka and the defense in front of him really are. It will also be a test of how much they’ve improved in back-to-back games, which the Preds haven’t faced since faltering in them during the first week of the season. And finally, it would be the first opportunity for the Predators to make up some ground against a team that’s been nearly unbeatable so far.
Winning at Minnesota tonight is exactly what should be expected of the Nashville Predators if they’re going to compete in this year’s Central Division. Winning at home against Chicago tomorrow, on the other hand, would be a beacon for fans to look toward the rest of the year. The Preds have already taken down one top team in the NHL with a win against San Jose last week; beating the Blackhawks would top that and become easily their biggest achievement so far this season.