Today marks the last game in March for the Nashville Predators. The month of April lies ahead, and with it the end of the 2013 NHL season. If the Preds have any hope of making the playoffs it rests on piling up wins, or at the very least not losing in regulation, it rests on finding a way to win today in Denver against the worst team in the Western Conference, the Colorado Avalanche.
That sounds easy, but it wasn’t back on February 18th. Nashville lost that game, one it should have won handily. Chris Mason was chased from the net on what was supposed to be a day off for Pekka Rinne, who came on in relief. Matt Duchene scored a goal on a blown offside call, a goal which many singled out as the margin of victory. But perhaps most importantly, Nashville’s defense completely melted down: the team which had surrendered no more than four goals in 15 previous games and no more than three in 14 of them, leading the NHL in team defense, gave up six. The Preds tried to mount a combeack but fell 6-5 in regulation.
The loss in Denver was the beginning of the long, slow, downhill slide for Nashville. The Preds were tied with St. Louis for second in the Central before that game. Their record sat at 7-3-5 after having gone 6-2-2 in their previous 10 games, thanks largely to a stretch of dominant play by both Rinne and the defense playing in front of him. They gave up just 1.67 goals on average over their first 15 games, tops in the league at the time. Since then they have given up 3.05 goals per game en route to compiling an awful 7-11-1 record.
To put that into perspective, they have dropped from a .633 points percentage – the equivalent of going 48-26-8 over the course of a normal season, good enough to win a division in a lot of years – to .500, the equivalent of going 34-34-14, which is bad enough to finish roughly 13th in the conference most seasons.
That first matchup with Colorado also marked the first time this season that Nashville lost in regulation after actually scoring a goal – all of their other 60-minute losses had come via shutout. They’ve repeated their feat from that game eight times since.
This afternoon the Nashville Predators face the Avalanche for the first time since losing on February 18th. Colorado’s playoff hopes have been done for a while now, but Nashville’s are still hanging by a thread. That means the Predators need a win, badly. They need to come out with purpose today, and purpose requires motivation. They could get it by thinking about something big-picture like their desire to make the playoffs. Or could they could focus on something very narrow and very easily accessed: the desire for revenge.
Wanting to make the playoffs means wanting to win. Wanting revenge means not settling for simply beating Colorado, but to completely outplay them in every aspect of the game and make them pay for sending Nashville on a long, slow slide to the bottom of the Central Division. It’s not like that ability isn’t there, either. The team just has to find that gear like it did last week against Calgary and Columbus. If it doesn’t, its chances of making the playoffs will sink to near-Coloradan levels. With six games coming up against Chicago and Detroit, coming into the game hungry for payback is the Nashville Predators’ best – and perhaps last – chance to get back in good enough shape to make a playoff push.