You can forgive Predators fans these days if they’re feeling a bit like passengers in a plane piloted by Harrison Ford.
Sure, it’s been a thrilling ride this season, one that for a time looked like it might be the best in franchise history. But during the past few weeks this team has hit some serious chop. The Preds are off to a miserable 2–7 start this month and have just two wins to show for their past 11 games.
The crash hasn’t devastated them in the standings. Even after blowing third-period leads and losing to the Ducks on Sunday and the Wild on Tuesday, Nashville lags only one point behind Anaheim and St. Louis for the Western Conference lead. But the slump has cost them their lead in that race as well as in the Central Division. And maybe more important, it has stalled their momentum.
And the timing couldn’t be worse. Because, all things being equal, March is a lousy month to go cold.
For a team with championship aspirations it’s not just important to enter the playoffs on a roll. It’s almost imperative. Consider the records of Stanley Cup finalists going back to the 2005-06 season, the first one after the 2004–05 lockout and the major changes it brought to the game. Virtually every team, outside of the tandem of Chicago and Philadelphia in 2009–10, hit the home stretch at a full gallop. Check out the chart. Five recent Cup winners banked at least 10 wins and 20 points in March, including the 2014 champion Kings. Cumulatively, the past nine champions went a combined 82-36-14 during that month, a solid .667 points percentage. The runners-up were slightly stronger at 81-37-16 (.674).
Of course it’s not just about the wins. It’s about indications that a team has the potential to maintain its altitude ... or not.
When you look at the Preds, it’s easy to spot the warning signs.
Goalie Pekka Rinne, a viable Hart Trophy candidate coming out of the All-Star break, is just 2–5 with a GAA of 2.37 and a .909 save percentage in eight games this month, well off his season totals of 2.11 and .926. The power play, which had been on an 0-for-17 slide before connecting in two of Nashville's last three games, is a stagnant mess of individual players making individual plays. The five-on-five offense has gone cold, as have many of the team’s key producers. Filip Forsberg has just five points in his past 17 games and hasn’t scored a goal in 11. Mike Ribeiro has one goal in his past 12 and five points in his past nine. Colin Wilson has one point in his past 13, despite a promotion to the first line. Shea Weber has two points in his past 15.
But the biggest concern may be a defense that’s struggling with the zone coverage and breakouts that came so easily earlier this season.
And the Preds aren’t the only contenders with engine trouble. It was just a couple of weeks back that the Islanders looked like a decent bet to come out of the East. But they’ve hit their own pockets of turbulence this month, going 2-4-2 to cough up top spot in the Metropolitan and fall five points behind the surging Rangers, who have four games in hand.
As in Nashville, the instrument panel on Long Island is flashing red. The offense has gone ice cold, scoring just a single goal in each of the team’s past four games and creating few challenges for opposing goalies down low. The Isles have dropped four straight at home, where at 23-8-0 they were gobbling points at an efficiency that rivaled their 1981-82 Cup championship team. They cough up leads like fur balls and struggle to finish off close games. Their 28th-ranked penalty kill is hemorrhaging goals and their power play can’t get them back.
Montreal’s 2-4-2 mark is raising eyebrows as well, despite the Canadiens having faced a murderer’s row of opponents and a road-heavy schedule so far this month. This is a team that is consistently on its heels defensively and was out-possessed at even-strength in 11 straight games before the desperation of a three-goal deficit tilted that small battle their way in Monday night’s 3–2 loss to Tampa. If not for the peerless play of goalie Carey Price, things could be even worse for the Habs.
What's happened to these teams? There are a number of factors in play, starting with injuries. Rinne hasn't been the same since returning from a knee injury and might be dealing with lingering mobility issues. First line winger Kyle Okposo finally returned to the Islanders after weeks on the sideline with a detached retina, but is scoreless and –7 in his first five games back while the team deals with the absence of top-pairing defenseman Nick Leddy (upper body) and starting goalie Jaroslav Halak (lower body).
The Isles may also be struggling with the pressure of being targeted by opponents looking to measure up ahead of the playoffs. Or it might be a case of finally being figured out by foes who have made adjustments after studying their system all season.
Ultimately, it may be some combination of all three.
At least Montreal has the time and opportunity to climb out of its nosedive before the month is over. The Canadiens’ remaining seven games feature just two opponents that are currently in a playoff spot, although that won’t matter much if they can’t figure out how to spend less time chasing the puck, finish more often when they have it and take some pressure off Price, who has looked frighteningly (but understandably) human in his last two outings.
And it won’t even be that easy for the other two clubs on the skids. While the Predators play five-of-seven at Bridgestone Arena, where they’ve enjoyed considerable success this season, six of their opponents are in playoff position. It’s even worse for the Isles, whose final six matchups feature the Blackhawks, Wild, Kings, Ducks and Red Wings. Their only non-playoff opponent, New Jersey, is 9-3-2 in its past 14.
Last season's Maple Leafs were a total stretch drive buswreck that went from playoff position on March 10 into a 3-13 skid that left them on the golf course, but it's still possible for a team to pull out of a dive at the last minute—the 2010 Blackhawks recovered to go 5-0-1 in April on their way to the title—but history shows that it’s far better to pull hard on the throttle as March roars into April.