The Nashville Predators are currently in 1st place in the Central Division, but just barely.
They lead the Winnipeg Jets by just one point in the standings, and they lead the St. Louis Blues by five points. Both also have enough games in hand to either cover the Preds’ lead or come close to it.
If you’re the Preds, it’s easy to look at the standings and think you are on course for your second consecutive Central Division title. But in reality, the path to winning the Central will be quite difficult for Nashville, for three big reasons.
The Jets are bound to recover
If you want to find another NHL team with as much frustrating inconsistency this season, look no further than the Winnipeg Jets.
Their talented roster combined with the Predators’ inconsistency should have resulted in Winnipeg absolutely running away with the Central title. But here they are, one point back and with a lot of questions moving forward.
The Jets have gone 4-5-1 in their last 10 games and only 14-11-2 since January 1st. Defense and goaltending have been their biggest issues (they currently allow 2.98 goals per game, good for 14th in the league) as well as injuries. Dustin Byfuglien has been battling injuries all season and has caused a ripple effect throughout their blueline.
Still, they have an incredible potent offense with both size and skill on nearly every forward line. They also added another sizeable forward in Kevin Hayes at the deadline. Hayes has three points in four games since coming over from New York.
The Predators will not be able to count on the Jets being a .500 hockey team the rest of the way. They are just too talented. And when Byfuglien comes back, which should be soon, their defense will be even better.
The Blues are the team to beat
Along those same lines, the Predators probably can’t count on the Blues cooling off anytime soon. They’ve probably been the hottest team in the league since the calendar flipped to 2019 and they don’t really show any signs of slowing down.
As I pointed out a few weeks ago, the Blues should be the biggest worry for the Preds at this point. Because of their combination of size and skill, and the fact that the Preds’ have shown they can be beaten consistently by both, the Blues are simply not a good matchup for the Preds right now. Five of their six top defensemen are over 6’3″ and north of 210 pounds. Forwards like Pat Marooon and Zach Sanford are also tough matchups.
The Preds added some size at the deadline in Brian Boyle and Wayne Simmonds. Will it be enough? It’s tough to tell at this point.
Nashville’s remaining schedule is tough
At this point, probably the most sizable obstacle in between the Preds and another Central Division title is their remaining schedule.
First, they are clearly at a disadvantage having played more games than Winnipeg and St. Louis. Fewer games remaining means a smaller margin for error.
But they also have only six home games left. For a team that loves to rely on their home ice advantage to put pressure on opponents, this leaves the Predators at another disadvantage. The Predators have won 22 games at Bridgestone, tied for the most in the Western Conference, but they will have more road games than home games down the stretch.
Then, if you look at the opponents the Preds face, there are some really tough matchups coming up. Their next road trip should be reasonable, hitting up Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Jose, but then after that are six excellent, contending teams all in a row: Toronto, Pittsburgh, Winnipeg, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Columbus.
The final three games against Buffalo, Vancouver, and Chicago might be the deciding factor. Even those games won’t be easy.
The Predators also only have three remaining games against Central opponents. Their only chance to directly affect how other Central Division-contending opponents perform down the stretch will be a road game in Winnipeg on March 23rd.
Still, there is a path to winning the Central.
This graphic from Hockeyviz.com shows the Predators are on pace to fall short of the Jets by about two points. Can the Preds be two points better than the Jets down the stretch? I think so.
If so, the Central Division could be theirs.
If the Predators play more like they did against Minnesota on Sunday and Tuesday, they could find themselves in position to do just that. They will need more consistent offense, better goaltending, and more improvement from their power play (which has looked slightly better recently).
Winning the Central isn’t everything, of course. But home ice advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs would go a long way towards returning to the Western Conference Final. Especially since they will probably face the Blues and Jets in those first two rounds.
— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —