How new-look Nashville Predators on brink of improbable — the NHL playoffs

Luke Evangelista didn't need a second chance to make a first impression.

The date was March 30. The Nashville Predators' opponent was the Pittsburgh Penguins. Evangelista's ears were open as wide as the smile that creased his cheeks.

"I mean, my first game was against (Sidney) Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Kris) Letang, all those guys," a just-turned-21 Evangelista said. "That was pretty cool. I had that hit on Malkin. Then I went back to the bench and Crosby was chirping me from the bench, so that was a pretty cool welcome to the NHL moment."

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The Predators have had a lot of those this season. The Predators have the attention of teams across the league.

Take 23-year-old defenseman Jake Livingstone, for instance. The college free agent from Minnesota State who is still taking classes so he can earn his college degree, whose managerial accounting professor is a Winnipeg Jets fan.

"Hopefully, he passes me," Livingstone joked.

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His welcome to the NHL moment occurred Thursday during his debut, a victory against the Carolina Hurricanes.

"The first period was a little nerve-wracking," he said. "Had a breakaway by (Sebastian) Aho. I was a little nervous skating behind him."

The stories go on and on. Yet here the Predators are, chasing the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference with three games to play.

The math doesn't add up.

Take the 114 combined games Filip Forsberg (29), Ryan Johansen (24), Juuso Parssinen (23), Matt Duchene (seven), Roman Josi (16) and Alexandre Carrier (15) have missed because of injuries since Feb. 13, subtract their combined 78 goals and 217 points and that shouldn't equal being three points out of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

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Yet here the pesky Predators are, with three games to play, three points behind the Jets and two behind the Calgary Flames, in an effort to push the second-longest active postseason streak in the league to nine.

Yet here the pesky Predators are, facing those two teams for two games in a row, likely without most, if not all, of that $35 million-plus in salary on the ice.

The team that sold at the trade deadline, all but leaving this season for dead, has bought into whatever Predators coach John Hynes and his staff are selling.

The team that isn't supposed to be here keeps hanging around, thanks to players such as Evangelista, Tommy Novak, Philip Tomasino, Cody Glass, Mark Jankowski and of course the glue, goalies Juuse Saros and Kevin Lankinen.

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The new kids on the block have been a hit not many expected. The new kids on the block have a legitimate chance to do the improbable -- make the playoffs. Even if they don't, even if the streak ends, this season will go down as a success.

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Had someone told Hynes in early March, when outgoing general manager David Poile dealt Mattias Ekholm, Tanner Jeannot, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, that this band of misfits would be within sniffing distance of such an accomplishment, he probably wouldn't have believed it.

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"You have to be where your feet are," Hynes said. "You have to coach the group you have. When we had a lot of changes, we weren't too far out of the playoffs ... we were hovering right there. We've had games you could lose 7-0 to the Rangers and it could take a chunk out. We were able to respond and keep the belief. That was the mindset back then, to get to this point."

Mission accomplished on that front. Where it goes from here, we'll soon find out.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Predators knocking on postseason door despite injuries, trades