Here's how the Predators can make the playoffs 

Down the Stretch They Come

Down the Stretch They Come
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As the NHL season resumes after the Winter Olympic break, the Nashville Predators sit in the basement of the Central Division.

To put it mildly, that isn't prime position for making a playoff push.

There was a brief window where it looked likely Nashville might go on a hot streak and sneak into the final playoff spot. Yet even though the team's play improved in the last few weeks before the Sochi sabbatical, the Preds nevertheless slipped from their best placing — fifth in the Central — down to last. They were passed even by the Winnipeg Jets, who spent much of the year mimicking the Spruce Goose more than the aircraft for which they're named.

Bitter no-fun-niks are already scouting teenagers to pluck in June's draft, assured in their cynicism that the Predators will again be picking in the top five. That said, all hope is not lost for the Preds to play in the postseason. Especially if top-flight goaltender Pekka Rinne can return to form when he comes off injured reserve (as he might in the next week).

It's not a full glimmer of hope — more like the feeble blink of a sputtering lantern. But it exists.

Number crunchers say a playoff berth is all but assured if a team finishes the season with 95 points or so. That would take a gargantuan effort from Nashville: Barry Trotz's charges would have to win 16 or 17 of the remaining 23. A team that musters 92 points (give or take) would need some help, but would at least be within shouting distance at year's end. That would still require 14 or so wins — a monumental undertaking, to be sure, but not quite as intimidating.

The schedule gives the team a chance to bank crucial points out of the gate, as the Preds will play the first five games of the final stretch at home. Working against that twinkle of hope is that the opening salvo sends two of the league's best teams — Pittsburgh and St. Louis — to Fifth & Broad, along with visits from the surprising Tampa Bay Lightning, the still-in-the-hunt Columbus Blue Jackets and those intermittently airworthy Winnipeg Jets.

It gets worse. The Predators go on the road for 12 of the final 18 games and are never home for more than two games in a row. At one point, the team makes a three-game eastern swing, comes home for one, then goes back out for a trip to Western Canada and Chicago.

Every game is important — a phrase the Preds will repeat ad nauseam over the next six weeks — but some games remain more important than others. For starters, the opening home stand. In all likelihood, the Preds need to win at least three and pick up at least a point in one other game before they head on their relentless series of road trips.

Complicating matters is that the home stand is bifurcated by the NHL's trade deadline on Wednesday, giving David Poile and his staff three games to suss whether they'll be buyers or sellers. Once on the road, Nashville will need to rack up points against middling teams in the underwhelming East as well as that woeful conference's bottom-feeders. Two games against league-worst Buffalo should make for easy pickings, and a visit to Ottawa looks like a good chance to steal two more.

But it's the swing through Western Canada that might make or break the season. The Vancouver Canucks (once the class of the conference) are foundering, and their brethren in Calgary and Edmonton are predictably poor. Nashville's earlier run through Canada's left side was a mixed bag, but this time it likely needs to be a sweep.

If everything clicks, the Preds will close the season with four key games — at Dallas, home to Phoenix and Chicago, and wrapping the campaign in Minnesota. (Dallas and Phoenix are two of the teams logjammed with the Preds in the race for the final playoff spot. And while Minnesota seems safe in seventh, the Wild struggled at times before the break.)

Since the Preds first made the playoffs in the 2003-04 season, they've never missed in consecutive years. Part of that success was born of strong finishes and an ability to string together at least one lengthy winning streak.

It's no easy task, but the Preds need both to happen simultaneously this season to silence the screeching cynics — and maybe for Poile and Trotz to keep the jobs they've held for 15 years.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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