Although this season is shaping up to be the best in the brief history of the Nashville Predators, earning the franchise’s first playoff berth will require an even better performance in the second half.
The Predators hope to avoid their first three-game losing streak in three months when they visit the Chicago Blackhawks.
Nashville has failed to reach the playoffs in each of its first five seasons, finishing with a franchise-best 34 wins and 80 points in 2000-01.
Although the Predators have been one of the league’s biggest surprises in the first half of this season, they are battling several teams for one of the final four playoff spots in the Western Conference.
After losing just four of 16 games in January (10-4-2), Nashville began February with consecutive losses to Detroit and Tampa Bay before the All-Star break. The Predators last lost three straight from Nov. 2-7.
All-Star goaltender Tomas Vokoun played arguably the biggest role in Nashville’s strong first half, but entered the break in a slump. He allowed four goals on 28 shots in a 5-2 loss to Tampa Bay on Thursday—the fifth time in six games he has surrendered three goals or more.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz isn’t worried about his goalie.
“With recognition comes a big target on your back, and he’s going to have to deal with that,” Trotz said. “He’ll deal with that fine. He’s the backbone of our defense and an All-Star.”
While Nashville starts the second half of the season focused on making the playoffs, Chicago may have to be content with just trying to avoid the worst record in the West.
The Blackhawks, last in the conference with 40 points, should be happy to be starting a five-game homestand.
Chicago leads the league with 22 road losses but has been a much stronger home team, going 9-7-4-4 at the United Center.
Craig Anderson had the best game of his young career with 43 saves and Steve Sullivan, Mark Bell and Nathan Dempsey scored in the third period, leading the Blackhawks to a 4-1 victory at Toronto on Feb. 3.
“This is the best game I’ve ever played,” Anderson said. “To come in here and take two points from the Toronto Maple Leafs is a dream come true. Toronto and Chicago were my two favorite teams as a kid.”
The Blackhawks will be trying earn consecutive victories for the first time since a three-game win streak from Nov. 1-7. They have won four straight at home against the Predators.
STANDINGS (through Feb. 9): Predators - 60 points, 2nd place (tied), 12 PB, Central Division. Blackhawks - 40 points, 5th place, 32 PB, Central Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Predators - Scott Walker, 16 goals and 37 points; Marek Zidlicky and Kimmo Timonen, 22 assists; Jordin Tootoo, 92 PIM. Blackhawks - Mark Bell and Kyle Calder, 16 goals; Steve Sullivan, 27 assists and 41 points; Scott Nichol and Travis Moen, 95 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS (through Feb. 9): Predators - Power play: 14.4 percent (41 for 284), 23rd in NHL. Penalty killing: 81.7 percent (206 for 252), 24th. Blackhawks - Power play: 11.8 percent (29 for 246), 29th. Penalty killing: 85.9 percent (220 for 256), 6th.
SEASON SERIES: Blackhawks, 2-0.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Predators - 9-13-2-1 on the road; Blackhawks - 9-7-4-4 at home.