by Mike G. Morreale – NHL.com
The Nashville Predators were 35-26-8 (.565 points percentage) in the regular season and will enter the Stanley Cup Qualifiers as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. They will play the No. 11 seed, the Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8, .529), in one of eight best-of-5 series, and the winner will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Predators went 16-11-1 after they replaced coach Peter Laviolette with John Hynes on Jan. 6. They had won three in a row and appeared to be finding their game when the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
They need to get it going again when training camp begins (scheduled for July 10).
“You’re working while you’re practicing, but playing games is a whole different story,” defenseman Roman Josi said. “So I think using this time right now to get back into shape [is key], and then during training camp, I think it’s going to be really fast. Everybody’s rested, the games are going to be intense, and whoever builds that chemistry the quickest and gets back to their A game the quickest will have a really good chance.”
Nashville was bolstered by the play of Josi and goalie Juuse Saros. Josi, the captain, emerged as a contender for the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman in the NHL after leading the Predators with 65 points (16 goals, 49 assists), one of two defensemen in the NHL to lead his team (John Carlson of the Washington Capitals, 75 points). Saros took over as the No. 1 goalie after Pekka Rinne struggled and finished 17-12-4 with a 2.70 goals-against average and .914 save percentage, including a .919 even-strength save percentage in 40 games (34 starts).
Player to watch
Forward Matt Duchene signed a seven-year contract with the Predators on July 1, 2019. There was hope he could spark the offense following a season when Nashville had the worst power play in the NHL (12.9 percent) and was eliminated by the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference First Round. Duchene was ninth on Nashville with 13 goals, his fewest in his 11 NHL seasons. He was one of three Predators to score at least 40 points (42) and was second with five power-play goals, but Nashville ranked 25th in the NHL on the power play (17.3 percent). Duchene has 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 18 NHL playoff games with the Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets.
Who will be the starting goalie? Saros was 12-5-1 with a 2.22 GAA and .934 save percentage, including a .940 even-strength save percentage, in his last 20 games (18 starts) before the pause. Rinne was 4-6-1 with a 3.59 GAA and .895 save percentage (.904 at even strength) in that span. Hynes has a history of sticking with the hot goalie, and he said June 15 that the job is up for grabs entering training camp.
Dan Hamhuis, D — Expected to be available for qualifer series after missing the final four games before the pause with a lower-body injury.
Forward Eeli Tolvanen was reassigned to Milwaukee of the American Hockey League following training camp in September and scored 36 points (21 goals, 15 assists) in 63 games this season. The 21-year-old could spark the power play with his shot; he scored seven power-play goals for Milwaukee.
Rinne is one of four goalies in NHL history to start at least 89 consecutive postseason games by one team (2010-present). The others are Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils (194 games; 1994-2012), Patrick Roy of the Avalanche (133 games; 1996-2003) and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers (127 games; 2006-present).
They said it
“We’ve talked to [Rinne and Saros] over this break, and I think both players have to come back with the mindset that they want to have the starting job. I don’t think it’s probably smart or fair going into training camp to say that one guy is ahead of the other, only because we don’t know how they’re going to come back. We believe both guys can help us win, but it’s going to be a bit of a competition.” — coach John Hynes
Filip Forsberg — Matt Duchene — Mikael Granlund
Colton Sissons — Ryan Johansen — Calle Jarnkrok
Yakov Trenin — Kyle Turris — Viktor Arvidsson
Rocco Grimaldi — Nick Bonino — Craig Smith
Roman Josi — Ryan Ellis
Mattias Ekholm — Dante Fabbro
Jarred Tinordi — Korbinian Holzer