The Nashville Predators beat the Pacific Division-leading Anaheim Ducks in regulation Friday, April 4. The San Jose Sharks are not about to pay them back with hospitality for helping in a chase for the division by losing Saturday.
The defending 2013 Pacific Division champions are still a game up and own the tiebreak. San Jose has just four games left, but winning all of them could be enough. If the game in Anaheim is won in regulation, it opens the door to a title if the rivals even drop two of their other possible eight points.
In short, any combination of seven points earned by the Ducks or missed by the Sharks means a repeat champion in the Pacific Division. The Predators have a tragic number of four to be eliminated from the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs and have used their top goalie, and should be beaten at home.
Then again, they might not otherwise be spent after leading more than half the game by three goals. Former San Jose prospect Carter Hutton will be solid in net for a the kind of squad his former teammates tend to be uninspired against, no matter how much they protest that those teams can be tougher when playing for pride.
Teams fighting for Stanley Cup seeding do not also have pride? The Sharks should have both fueling them, and maybe that win or the two in the only other meetings of the 2013-14 NHL season will get the Predators respect.
Nashville offers an extra challenge. No one wants to have elimination be final so late in the season, and this is a better team than its statistics: San Jose scores three more and gives up four fewer goals in every seven games, taking 5.7 more shots and allowing 1.2 fewer, with a slight edge in faceoffs, a 4.8 percent better penalty kill but 1.3 percent worse power play, with almost one additional block and takeaway per game but almost three more giveaways.
While the Sharks have struggled with major contributors Raffi Torres and Tomas Hertl out most of the 2013-14 NHL season and had as many as seven forwards out with injury at one time, the Predators have been hit team-wide. Not one player has played every game, with star goalie Pekka Rinne being the most notable extended absence.
He is back and the team upgraded from Kevin Kline to Michael Del Zotto on the blue line. With a perennial Jack Adams candidate behind the bench in Barry Trotz, this is a Stanley Cup-playoff team despite almost certainly missing it for the 2013-14 NHL season.
The Sharks can start their own playoff preparation by effectively eliminating a playoff-worthy team while facing an elimination of their own—a loss pretty much ends any hope of winning the Pacific Division. Now is the time to get used to games with those stakes to prepare for closing out series in the coming weeks.
Other than approaching the game with killer instinct, there are three keys to victory...
Barry Trotz has disciplined teams. The Nashville Predators are among the teams with the fewest penalty minutes and they stick with a defensive system and wait for scoring opportunities on a counterattack or the power play.
The San Jose Sharks have to remain the team they have been thus far, with the fewest times shorthanded in the 2013-14 NHL season. They also must stay disciplined in their play, not letting frustration over scant scoring chances make them press and open the door for a potentially road-weary team.
Turn their D
The Nashville Predators are coming off a game down the coast the night before. Going through California is Death Valley for many teams in the NHL because strong Pacific Division contenders can feast off tired teams that have played their rivals.
That is what the San Jose Sharks must do. Part of the patience will be knowing that the plays do not have to be made early because they can be made later if the Predators are worn down.
San Jose's strategy should be to turn the defenders around to chase the puck all night, especially the dynamic Shea Weber who plays so many minutes every night. If Nashville has to work hard to defend and to get its scoring chances Saturday, the gas tank will run low by the third period.
Even with the San Jose Sharks getting the last change to match lines as they want, Shea Weber will spend a lot of time defending against Joe Thornton or Logan Couture. The other one will probably have to face the solid checking lines.
Beating the Nashville Predators is going to require someone else step up. The Sharks need secondary scoring to win this game.