It’s taken a lot of adversity for the Nashville Predators to get into this spot late in the season where they control their own destiny for the postseason.
Through injuries and a lot of lineup shuffling, the Predators have managed to stay right in the thick of the playoff race with just eight games remaining. They have the opportunity to finish off what’s been a wild regular season by first beating the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night for the seventh time this season.
Unlikely sources have contributed to this resurgence that the Predators went on to salvage the season. It’s a team sport and everyone from top to bottom has been a part of this surge, but there’s a few that really stand out as players who raised their level of play to be the difference-makers.
It became a “next man up” type of season for the Predators, and these players in particular answered the call.
1. Calle Jarnkrok
What a season it’s been for Calle Jarnkrok, a player who’s always been a solid depth player but has never taken that next step into being a full-time top-six type of player.
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Jarnkrok has shown that he can be effective regardless of where you stick him in the lineup. The Predators have relied on him raising his level of production heavily through all the injuries. He hasn’t disappointed.
As the trade deadline was looming and the Predators’ season was falling to the waste side, Jarnkrok was a player I was worried might get traded. His value was skyrocketing, but the team was fading fast.
Once the hot streak came, the team quickly shifted into not being sellers anymore. Jarnkrok is currently tied with Mikael Granlund for the team lead in goals with 12, and he’s also stepped up his level of play in all parts of his game to be in the conversation for the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward.
Jarnkrok is also performing at a career-high level with a 16 percent shooting percentage and an average ice time of over 16:30 per game. He’s been a vital piece to keeping the Predators alive in the playoff race.
2. Luke Kunin
Another player that had to deal with injuries that slowed down their start is Luke Kunin. After coming over during a draft day trade that sent away Nick Bonino, I was pleased with getting a younger player to add to the roster.
Kunin has really impressed me with his all-around play down this final stretch since coming back from injury. He’s a straight up bulldog out there forechecking and creating scoring chances.
In this massive three-game set the Predators are in the midst of against the Blackhawks, Kunin has really elevated his game. He’s got goals in each of the games, and also added an assist.
Kunin has really taken the role of being a versatile player you can move anywhere in the lineup, much like Jarnkrok.
Another thing that has impressed me about Kunin this season that I didn’t realize the Predators were getting at the time of the trade is his physical style of play. He’s got 67 hits on the season, which is nothing to scoff at from a forward and also already was ahead of his pace in Minnesota last season.
Kunin has been a huge surprise to me this season and he’s signed for one more season to really earn himself a nice payday after next season.
3. Eeli Tolvanen
How could I leave out Eeli Tolvanen on this list? Some people were inexplicably already calling this young man a bust, and now they’re eating a whole lot of crow.
Tolvanen had a lot of pressure on him to show he’s ready for the NHL stage this season. We knew he was going to get another chance, and did he ever deliver on that. He’d still be in the Calder Trophy conversation if not for also going down with injury, a common them on this Predators roster.
With six power play goals on the season and 11 power play points, Tolvanen has shown he’s a lethal weapon for the Predators power play. Without him in there, the power play has looked painfully non-existent.
Tolvanen returned to the lineup earlier this week and managed to score a goal quickly by skating to a high-danger area and getting a gorgeous feed from Viktor Arvidsson:
That was Tolvanen’s first goal at even strength this season, so that was awesome to see.
So one big silver-lining to pull from this season regardless of playoffs or not is Tolvanen is clearly not a bust and those people were crazy for ever thinking that. The Predators have themselves a dynamic scorer in Tolvanen that should have some special seasons ahead for us to witness.
4. Juuse Saros
We were all worried about whether or not Juuse Saros is truly the franchise goaltender we need him to be. At the early going of the season it didn’t look that way, and Pekka Rinne was having to take more of the starts.
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Much of this wasn’t on Saros as the team was playing poor in front of him, especially on the penalty kill. However, as the team elevate their play as a whole Saros quickly got locked in with them and good things started to result from it.
The 13 wins in 16 games was largely due to Saros putting up Vezina Trophy worthy numbers. He’s absolutely been one of the most consistent goaltenders in the NHL since the beginning of March.
Saros has a .925 save percentage which is tied for his career-best set in 2017-18 when he started 23 games and helped the Predators to a President’s Trophy.
A locked-in Saros means the Predators have a puncher’s chance to not only finish off this playoff push, but also make some things very interesting in their first round series.
Saros handled the pressure very well this season after dealing with another slow start. Expect him to be the Day 1 starter in 2021-22 and keep the Predators as a playoff contender while he’s in net.
5. The Entire Fourth Line, “The Herd Line”
Olivier has missed several games now due to injury and Jeannot has stepped in and quickly turned into a fan-favorite. The guy is a wrecking ball out there, as is that entire line.
Sometimes we overlook the fourth line and focus on the perceived stars of the team to carry all of the load. While you do need a strong top-six to go far in the playoffs, the fourth line has definitely been a huge advantage that the Predators have played with this season.
The Predators had no identity early in the season. They just looked like a random assortment of players that weren’t playing for each other. One the fourth line started cooking with gas, it’s like the entire team responded to playing with that aggression and chip on your shoulder mentality.
If the Predators are able to sneak into the playoffs, the fourth line is going to be a big luxury for this team to eat up valuable minutes and force turnovers to create opportunities.
Also, Sissons deserves a lot of praise in this fourth line discussion as he’s elevated his level of play immensely by scoring eight goals and being strong in the faceoff circle with a success rate of 54 percent.
This list isn’t meant to intentionally overlook others on this team who have been vital to the success. Quite frankly this entire team has come together in glorious fashion to salvage this season into being an exciting one for the fans.
Suddenly we have something to build on going into 2021-22 that we maybe didn’t see coming just two months ago. The Nashville Predators have a foundation that can help us avoid a lengthy rebuild if the front office makes smart moves in the offseason with contract extension and the signing of free agents.
I’ll throw some love to one more player, a personal favorite of mine for years now, for stepping up their play. That’s Viktor Arvidsson. He was struggling badly to open the season and then something suddenly clicked and now he’s up to third on the team in points with 25.
“Arvy Hustle” has been fun to watch over this past month and a half, and we need him to keep that switch flipped on for the duration of these final games of the regular season.