It was always going to be a weird season.
Truncated by the most inexplicable and inexcusable protracted pro sports labor dispute in history, this NHL year was foreordained to be a funhouse-mirror version of a typical season.
Eighty-two games spread heartily between October and April became 48 stuffed haphazardly between January and May.
Back-to-back games are de rigueur. Teams are asked to play three games in four days or four games in six. Road trips meander like Moses in the desert.
The standings, as a result, are a mess as jumbled as a hockey enforcer's dental work. Teams that started hot have stayed that way and surged to comfortable leads. The truly atrocious teams, meanwhile, long ago sank out of contention. They now patiently wait for a draft that appears to be as quality-heavy as any in a decade.
And then there is the mushy middle. The fat part of the NHL's bell curve is as portly as ever. In a league with a system that rewards mediocrity — by giving a point to teams losing in overtime and shootouts, and by sending more than half its teams to the post-season — hope springs eternal for even the blandly average.
This morass of monotony is where the Nashville Predators find themselves with 11 games remaining — in ninth place, well within shouting distance of the post-season. They've survived despite an inept offense (exacerbated by injuries to emerging star Colin Wilson, the surprising Gabriel Bourque and proven goal-poacher Patrick Hornqvist) that has long since passed frustration into the realm of comic absurdity.
In years past, the lack of goal scoring has been camouflaged by stout and sturdy defense. But the evidently surprising departure of Ryan Suter, coupled with nagging injuries, has made the defense look far too often like a Benny Hill sketch. Instead of "I Like It, I Love It," you could swear they'd made "Yakety Sax" their battle hymn.
And yet there they sit, oh-so-close to the playoffs.
This is an unusual situation. Heading into the stretch run during the past couple of seasons, general manager David Poile has found it wise to add pieces for a playoff push — bringing in Mike Fisher two seasons ago and then being truly aggressive last year, shipping picks and prospects to all corners of the earth for Paul Gaustad, Hal Gill and Andrei Kostitsyn.
But this year, instead of burning ice towards a strong finish, the Predators are treading water. Though they'd never say it, they're probably content if they miss the playoffs entirely, giving themselves a chance at one of the numerous hot prospects on June's draft board. With the league's salary cap going down this summer, the thrifty Predators may be able to snipe a star from a team with budgetary problems.
The team's poor play has raised hackles among fans who apparently don't remember when the Predators teams were truly terrible. That's what happens when the faithful get a taste of regular-season success. The team announced a streak of 29 sellouts, which came to an end Tuesday in a game against the bottom-feeding Colorado Avalanche. The sheer number of ticket offers available for the last stretch of home games would indicate there may be empty seats in the last month of the season.
But sometimes teams have take a step back to take three steps forward, discomforting though that may be. And if this monstrous season — a shambling, misshapen mess of the league's own making — is the time when the Predators have to take some lumps, so be it.
Victories or defeats in the last few weeks, this is really a no-lose situation for the team at Fifth & Broad.
Get in the playoffs, and anything can happen. Miss them, and the rewards may be just as great.
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