Throughout their relatively brief history, the Nashville Predators have tried to buck the trends. In particular, they’ve worked to be competitive while remaining fiscally responsible in an era when money most often rules professional sports.
Now, with roughly a month to go in the season, they find themselves unwittingly in a situation so unusual, so unthinkable, that it flies in the face of a sports philosophy held so deeply that it has become cliché: Defense wins championships.
This team, built around a top goaltender and a young, productive group of defensemen, is in contention to lead the NHL in fewest goals allowed — yet they might not even make the championship tournament (aka the playoffs), let alone win a title.
“There’s no question that having the lowest goals-against in the league would be a great rallying point for us,” said general manager David Poile, the architect of the current roster. “Who hasn’t made the playoffs [when they’ve done that]? That would really be unbelievable.”
Games such as last Tuesday’s at Edmonton make it all the more possible. Nashville limited the league’s worst team to 26 shots and one goal but lost ground in the standings with a 2-1 shootout defeat on a night when Calgary and Dallas (two of several battling the Predators for the final Western Conference postseason berths) both won.
At the conclusion of play that day, the team was third in goals-against per game at 2.33. That was on pace for the franchise record for fewest goals allowed in a season and only marginally behind league leader Boston (2.27), and it made Nashville the only one of the top 10 in goals-against average not among the top eight in conference standings.
With one game remaining on the current road trip -- Tuesday at San Jose -- the Predators' goals-against average is 2.30, but they are 11th in the Western Conference standings.
“Not giving up goals is the way the game is played," center David Legwand said. "Being strong defensively, playing as a five-man group and doing all those things it takes to win is big for us. We have to keep doing those things.”
In the 11 seasons since Nashville started the NHL’s latest wave of expansion, 10 different clubs have led the league in goals-against average. New Jersey is the only one to have done so more than once. Every one of those teams made the playoffs, and eight were division winners.
“It would be nice to say if you’re the greatest team ever that you’re good in all different areas of the game, but your team has to find your niche and what’s going to work for you to be successful,” Poile said. “We’re not a high-powered offensive team. A 3-2 or 2-1 game really suits us and is how we have to play, and it’s really preparation for being in the playoffs. That’s usually how the playoff games are played.”
Since 1998-99, three teams that led the league in goals-against during the regular season also won the Stanley Cup, most recently Detroit in 2007-08. But five were eliminated in the opening round of the postseason, including New Jersey a year ago.
None of that concerns Poile at the moment.
“When we’re in the playoffs this year, I think we’re certainly as well-suited to have success in the playoffs as we ever have,” he said. “The offensive teams that you play — that’s going to be chinked down a bit. Our defensive play is going to carry us in the playoffs even more than it has in the regular season.”
At this point, there’s no guarantee it actually will carry them into the postseason.