A “must-win” is a term that gets overused in sports a lot, but it’s absolutely necessary in this one tonight as the Nashville Predators travel to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins. A matchup between two teams on the playoff bubble.
For the Penguins, they’re just one point ahead of the Florida Panthers for the final wildcard spot, while the Predators sit three points back of the Winnipeg Jets for the Western Conference’s last wildcard spot.
This game tonight is going to feel like a play-in tournament game. The Penguins have more room for error, but a loss for either team will be a setback in their playoff hopes.
The Nashville Predators are coming off an emotional and gutsy upset win over the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, slightly boosting their postseason odds to just over 10 percent, per MoneyPuck.com.
Let’s dive into this matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that defeated the Nashville Predators 3-1 on February 28 in a game that had zero goals until the third period.
Keys to Victory for the Nashville Predators over the Penguins
My first key to victory for the Predators is for the penalty kill to remain red hot. The Penguins went 0-for-3 on the power play in the first meeting and their power play ranks 13th in the NHL.
The Predators have elevated their penalty kill to 11th in the NHL and it’s really been their calling card to remain close in games and pull off some upsets along the way. That obviously has to continue into this game.
When you consider what all has been lost through trades and injuries, it’s pretty extraordinary that the penalty kill has remained a strong area for this team. They lost valuable penalty killers like Tanner Jeannot, Mattias Ekholm and Mikael Granlund through the trade deadline, and have recently been without their captain Roman Josi.
My next key is winning puck battles. Pretty straightforward, but is so paramount to the Predators finding scoring chances. Offense hasn’t come easy, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone considering all of the roster turnover that has occurred.
When the Predators are crashing hard on the forecheck and winning puck battles, it establishes their offensive zone time and opportunities to throw pucks at net.
It may happen in the coming years with this wave of youth coming in, but as of now, the Predators are not a high speed oriented team. Especially without Filip Forsberg and Roman Josi in the lineup.
The reason the Predators have defied odds and stayed playoff relevant is because they grind away at the opponent. It’s not always pretty, and sometimes the analytics will say they deserve to lose, but all that matter ultimately is the final score.
Another way they can thrive in this area tonight against Pittsburgh is just being disruptive by getting into passing lanes and making it difficult for the opposition to get set up. This is another way that the Predators have stiffened up on the defensive end.
Over their last 10 games, the Predators have held opponents to three goals or less seven times while going 5-4-1 over that stretch. They held Boston, Seattle and Detroit each to one goal over that stretch.
And of course, that brings us to the final key to victory which you can pretty much just copy and paste for every Predators game from here on out; Juuse Saros has to play up to his Vezina Trophy caliber. He has to steal some games to give the Predators any chance of pulling off the unthinkable and actually making the playoffs.
Saros made 35 saves on 36 shots against Boston on Tuesday and has his shutout bid utterly spoiled in the final second of regulation on a goal from David Pastrnak. Just rude.
That being said, since it’s not a back-to-back, I would expect Saros to get the call again tonight in Pittsburgh.
Saros is third in the NHL in Goals Saved Above Expected as he joins Ilya Sorokin and Linus Ullmark as the undeniable three-best goalies and eventual Vezina Trophy nominees, although it’s almost certainly going to be Ullmark that wins the hardware.
You have to ride Saros to the finish line and do your best to make his job a little easier by clearing pucks on rebounds, staying reliable on the penalty kill and limiting those high-danger chances by keeping your defensive structure in front of your netminder.
Other Storylines for Preds-Pens
We’re going to see Granlund for the first time with his new team. When that trade happened that sent Nashville a 2023 2nd-round draft pick, it looked like a confusing move for the Penguins. Since then, Granlund has registered just three points in 13 games while playing on Pittsburgh’s third line.
The last matchup with Pittsburgh was coincidently enough Granlund’s last game with the Predators before being traded on March 1. He registered two penalty minutes and four shots on goal in 20 minutes of ice time.
In recent history the Penguins have haunted the Predators fanbase, dating back to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. We only see them twice per year, but the rivalry, at least from Predators fan’s perspective, remains constant.
Sidney Crosby, at age 35, leads the Penguins in points with 85 is his highest season total since 2018-19 and he will likely surpass his highest total in a decade.
Tristan Jarry is the likely starting goaltender that the Penguins will go with. He has a 2.98 GAA and .908 Save % and gave up just one goal and 25 saves against the Predators on February 28.
The Predators have to test these goaltenders more by throwing pucks at the net and looking for those rebounds. One goal isn’t going to cut it against the Penguins. They need to get into the 30-plus shot range to have a chance.
It would be very refreshing to put a dent in Pittsburgh’s playoff push while also climbing to within one point of the Jets. Simply speaking, this game has enormous implications and should be treated like a playoff elimination game. Leave it all out there and play a solid 60-minute game.
I give the Nashville Predators a moderate chance to notch another win and make things really interesting.