As the final buzzer sounded at Staples Center on Saturday night, the Nashville Predators had hung on to a hard-fought 4-3 victory over the Los Angeles Kings. The win punctuated a first half of the 2017-18 NHL season and continued to cement their position as one of the top three teams in the Central Division. With the Winnipeg Jets, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche all joining Nashville as teams on the inside of the playoff picture, the competition is set for fierce battle within the division over the final forty games of the season. Extend the lens a little further and look at a very competitive Pacific Division and the Western Conference will most probably find itself coming down to the final days of the regular season before creating the matchups that will find eight teams fighting for the right to battle for the Stanley Cup sometime in June.
2017-18 Nashville Predators End First Half of Season on a High Note
The Predators were completing a brief three-game Western swing that saw them drop games in Las Vegas (in regulation) and Arizona (in overtime) before travelling to Los Angeles for their tilt against the Kings. The team was still getting accustomed to playing without their leading scorer, Filip Forsberg, out with the vaguely specified “upper body injury” for at least the remainder of this month.
Having been buoyed by the return of defenseman Ryan Ellis, who had missed the team’s first 38 games after off-season knee surgery, the Predators seamlessly integrated the diminutive rearguard into the lineup in Las Vegas. By the time the team moved on to Arizona and Los Angeles, Ellis looked as if he’d never missed a beat, scoring his first goal of the season against the Coyotes. He added his first assist the following game against the Kings. Playing with Roman Josi, Ellis was eased into special team duties and has still yet to crack the twenty minutes of ice time threshold, but with eight of the next nine games at home, fans should expect to see a lot more of Ryan Ellis in the near future.
A first-half report card shows generally favourable grades across the board for the Preds as a team, but a few questions do need to be addressed as the team gears themselves up for a deep post-season run.
With eight of the next nine games at home, the team returns home for what should be a fairly quiet, low-stress month of January. Coach Peter Laviolette will be monitoring his lineup closely as general manager David Poile may load a bullet or two in the chamber of his trade-packing pistol before the deadline about eight weeks away.
With Forsberg out, Laviolette has had Calle Jarnkrok up on a line with Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson. He has also had Jarnkrok in the centre of the mix, with Johansen slotting down at times. Veterans Nick Bonino and Scott Hartnell are two underachievers in the first half that need to solidify their roles within the top nine. Austin Watson, a former first-round draft choice has heretofore supplied more grit than groceries to date, but with his first two-goal game against Los Angeles last week may be ready to take on a more prolific role in the team’s offensive plans. The line of Kyle Turris centring Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala was on fire for a good portion of November and December but has cooled a bit over the past couple of weeks despite a number of good scoring chances.
Tonight the Edmonton Oilers come into Bridgestone Arena, a team in trouble. A pre-season favourite for post-season accolades, The Oil has not produced much but heartache in Edmonton over the first half of the season. Paced by superstar forward Connor McDavid, Edmonton finds themselves dead last on the penalty kill, and in the bottom third of the league on the power play, as well as goals for and goals against.
The second half of the season begins with game 42 on the schedule and a victory over the visiting Oilers will go a long way towards establishing the team’s desire to secure home ice when post-season seeding begins.
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