There is an unhappy connection that binds fans of the Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers: Both teams were swept out of the playoffs last year.
Nashville was swept in the first round by the Colorado Avalanche, who went on to win the Stanley Cup. Florida was brushed aside in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning, who lost to the Avalanche in the Final.
But when the Predators host the Panthers on Saturday afternoon, neither team is in playoff position, although both are close.
Florida has gone 5-2-0 in its past seven games. Nashville, however, has lost three of its past four games — including a 5-0 setback to the Boston Bruins on Thursday.
“There was a lack of execution by us. There were a lot of missed passes,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh, whose Predators have been outscored 15-5 in those four games since the All-Star break.
“There’s a willingness and a price to pay if you want to be good in this league,” McDonagh added.
Obviously, McDonagh — who won two Stanley Cup titles with Tampa Bay — doesn’t believe the Predators are paying that price right now.
Nashville captain Roman Josi agreed.
“We came into the (locker) room after the second period, and we were embarrassed,” Josi said. “It definitely wasn’t enough (effort). It was a 5-0 game, and we didn’t offer enough pushback.”
Josi won the Norris Trophy in 2020 as the NHL’s top defenseman. He leads Nashville in assists (31) and points (44). He puts pressure on the opposition due to his elite skating and puck-handling.
McDonagh and Mattias Ekholm give Nashville at least three quality defensemen.
Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg are tied for second on the team with 42 points. Forsberg, who signed an eight-year, $68 million extension in the offseason, leads the team with 19 goals.
Provided each team uses its No. 1 goalie, Saturday’s matchup will feature Nashville’s Juuse Saros and Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky.
Saros, who got hurt and missed last year’s playoffs, is 20-15-5 with a 2.79 goals-against average this season.
Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy recipient, is 16-14-2 with a 3.05 GAA, far worse than his career GAA of 2.59.
Offensively, Matthew Tkachuk leads Florida in assists (48) and points (75). Carter Verhaeghe tops the Panthers in goals with a career-high 29 on the season.
But perhaps the biggest strength of the Panthers has been their group of defensemen, including both veterans and emerging standouts.
The former list includes Marc Staal, hard-hitting Radko Gudas and Aaron Ekblad.
Florida’s emerging contributors are Brandon Montour, who already has a career-best 46 points; and Gustav Forsling, whose 32 points are just five short of his career high.
But of all those players, it was Staal who took center stage in Florida’s 6-3 win over the Washington Capitals on Thursday. Staal scored his first goal since he tallied twice on March 15, 2022.
“It felt good,” Staal said. “I’m not that stressed about (scoring), I don’t really think about it, but the boys were really pumped up for me.”
–Field Level Media