The Nashville Predators have flipped the script on their strange season.
Less than a month ago, they were also-rans, serving as foils for the rumor mill that was anticipating which playoff-contending teams would pluck talent from their lineup before the April 12 trade deadline.
But Saturday, as they face the defending Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning in Nashville, these same Predators are the hottest team in the NHL, winners of nine of their past 10 games and in solid playoff position.
The Lightning, meantime, have hit a rough patch, winning only three of their past eight, and now their veteran captain and leading scorer Steven Stamkos is out with an undisclosed injury.
Stamkos doubled over in pain and skated slowly off the ice Thursday following a non-contact play in the third period of the Lightning’s 6-4 win in Columbus. The 31-year-old sniper didn’t return as his teammates broke a two-game losing streak with the victory.
“He’s not playing tonight and he’s probably doubtful for Tuesday night,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Saturday.
Nashville coach John Hynes is confident which players he’s icing these days and will have them on display at Bridgestone Arena as they look to continue their recent winning ways.
During a road trip through Florida against the Lightning and Panthers in the middle of March, the slumping Predators were the subject of multiple trade talks with the deadline a month away. Soon, as the pundits’ scuttlebutt went, clubs headed for playoffs would swoop into the Central Division’s bottom half and snare whatever good talent they needed from those on the outside of the four-team postseason cut line.
Following a 6-3 loss in Tampa on March 13, Nashville dropped to 11-16-1, and defenseman Mattias Ekholm and forward Mikael Granlund were the top targets, the experts said. Ekholm is signed through next season, while Granlund would become a true rental heading to unrestricted free agency in the offseason.
However, the Predators suddenly have won 11 of 13, moving from seventh place to fourth in the Central Division. They trailed fourth-place Chicago by 10 points but now slot into that final playoff spot, maintaining a four-point advantage over the fifth-place Blackhawks, with a seven-point edge over Dallas and Columbus through Thursday’s games.
As for the trade deadline, a good chance exists that Ekholm and Granlund will finish the season donning the club’s yellow, white and blue — and maybe Nashville will become a team that trades for some help by Monday’s trade deadline.
“It’s a committed team,” Hynes said following Thursday’s 7-1 rout of the Red Wings in Detroit. “The difference now between earlier in the year is guys understand how hard we need to play and what the structure needs to be.”
On his 28th birthday Thursday in Detroit, Viktor Arvidsson recorded his third career hat trick, getting the final tally on a slick penalty shot.
The Predators are 1-5-0 this season against Tampa Bay, but they won the last meeting — a 4-1 decision on March 15 behind a 38-save performance by Pekka Rinne — and these are very different teams since the Lightning won the first five meetings this season.
–Field Level Media