Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators lost a Calder Trophy he seemed to have giftwrapped for him last season by fading badly in the second half of the season. And for the first quarter of 2015-16, it was much of the same.
Forsberg had two goals in his first 20 games this season and at one point, endured a 17-game stretch in which he failed to score a goal. But it seems Forsberg’s second season in the league has been diametrically opposed to the first. With a hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Predators 3-2 win Wednesday night, Forsberg has nine goals in his past nine games and with 20 games to go, is three back of the standard he set during his rookie season.
And it could not have come at a better time for the Predators, who face the annual monumental task of just getting into the playoffs in the Western Conference. If the playoffs were to start today, the Predators would draw the Los Angeles Kings in the first round. Some reward for making the playoffs, eh? But the Predators are accustomed to facing large mountains in the post-season. In four of the past five times they’ve made the playoffs, they’ve had the distinction of losing in either the first or second round to the team that advanced to the Stanley Cup final in the Western Conference. Three times, the team that handed them their lunch in the first round went on to win the Cup.
Which brings us back to Forsberg. His playoff resume is slim since it’s only his second season in the league, but he was pretty impressive in Nashville’s first-round ouster to Chicago. He scored four goals and six points in six games, including a hat trick in Game 5 when the Predators faced elimination. If the Predators have any hope of hanging with the big boys in the Western Conference this spring, clearly Forsberg is going to have to be a big part of things.
“It’s really too early to think about that because we’re still in a race here,” Forsberg said. “Things are looking better with wins two nights in a row, but we know it’s going to be really tight the rest of the way.”
With the Ryan Johansen trade not working out near as well as the Predators had planned when they made the deal, they’ve been leaning hard on the line of Mike Ribeiro between Forsberg and Craig Smith for much of their offense. All three of them fell on hard times when the season began. Smith had just four goals in his first 20 games and Ribeiro only two. “The last half dozen games they’ve really been noticeable,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said of his top line. “Once you get speed off the attack, they’re all skilled players and when you get speed in the offensive zone, good things can happen out there. They’re talented players and Fil can really shoot the puck.”
Like a lot of teams in the NHL, the Predators can’t count on getting any significant offense whatsoever from their bottom-six forwards. It hasn’t helped that Colin Wilson has fallen off the face of the earth after hitting the 20-goal plateau last season. And their second line of Johansen between James Neal and Calle Jarnkrok has not found the back of the net in five games. Neal has only two assists in that span and Johansen has just one goal in his past 14.
That leaves an awful lot up to the top line and the defense corps to produce the offense. It doesn’t seem like a sure-fire recipe for success, but barring a trade deadline deal for another scoring forward, the Predators will have to make do with what they have – one of the best goaltenders in the world when he’s on his game, a world-class defense corps that can move the puck and score and a top-heavy group of forwards that has trouble generating offense.
It would be almost impossible for the Predators to find themselves in one of the top three spots in their division, so let’s just say they hang onto the first wildcard spot. That would mean a first-round matchup against one of the Kings, Anaheim Ducks or San Jose Sharks. If they managed to win that one, they’d probably move on to play one of the Blackhawks (against whom they’re 1-3-0 this season), the Dallas Stars (0-1-1) or the St. Louis Blues (0-3-1).
Seems like quite an uphill battle, but at least the Predators are used to it. “We’re doing a lot of good things right now,” Laviolette said. “And we need to. Three of the top teams in the league are in our division and Minnesota is really coming on so we’ve got to get winning.”