When the NHL returns to finish the 2019-20 season (dates to be determined), the Nashville Predators will play against the Arizona Coyotes in a five-game play-in series. The winner will advance to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Despite a fairly disappointing regular season, the Predators still have a very real chance of being a playoff team this year. All they have to do is win this series. The Coyotes are not just going to roll over and let the Predators beat them, however. It is going to be a very hard-fought series. For them to walk away with a series win and playoff birth, they need certain players to step up and lead the way. Here are five Predators who must step up in the play-in series against Arizona.
C Ryan Johansen
Ryan Johansen is the first player that comes to mind when thinking of players that need to step up. This is mostly because he was downright awful this season. He managed just 36 points in 68 games this year. A huge drop off from his 64 points last season, and 54 points in 2017-18. He was one of many Predators that had disappointing seasons in 2019-20. However, this long lay off is a chance to hit the reset button and start fresh when hockey does resume. He is a crucial piece to the Predators’ top-six forward group. He needs to show up and play well for Nashville to beat Arizona.
LW Filip Forsberg
Filip Forsberg certainly did not have his best NHL season this year, but he still led the team in goals with 21. Goal scoring is going to play a major role in this series, which makes Forsberg extremely important. The Coyotes are one of the best defensive teams in the NHL. They do not give up many goals, especially with a healthy Darcy Kuemper in net. For Nashville to win, they are going to have to find a way to put the puck in the net. Forsberg is without a doubt the Predators’ best goal scorer, which is why it is crucial he steps up offensively. If Forsberg and the rest of the Preds can’t score, they can’t win the series. He needs to lead the way offensively and be the elite goal scorer that he can be.
G Juuse Saros
Goaltending is going to play a major role in who comes out on top in this series. Darcy Kuemper is healthy and ready to go for the Coyotes. He is one of the best goalies in the league and was putting up Vezina Trophy level numbers before getting injured earlier this season. That injury is fully behind him now, and the Predators are going to have to get high-level goaltending to compete with Kuemper and the Coyotes.
Given the way he played this season, Juuse Saros has to be the starter for Nashville when hockey returns. He was much better than Pekka Rinne this season, particularly from January on. Saros had taken over the starting job by the time the season was paused, and he should still have it when hockey resumes. This is probably going to be a very low scoring series, so Saros needs to come up big in goal if the Predators are going to win.
D Mattias Ekholm
2019-20 was not a great season for defenseman Mattias Ekholm. He finished the year with 8 goals, 25 assists, 33 points, and a minus-1 rating. Those numbers aren’t terrible, but something just looked off with his game all season long. He was not his usual self defensively and really struggled to be the impact player he normally is. Much like Johansen, he is a player that may greatly benefit from this long lay off. It’s a chance to hit the reset button and start fresh. He needs to get back to being the defensive anchor that he has been for so many years now. Arizona is a team that struggles to score goals. If the Predators can shut down their offense, they will almost surely win the series. Ekholm needs to get back to being Ekholm and play a big role in shutting down the Yotes’ offense.
D Roman Josi
Roman Josi is the Predators’ captain, best defenseman, and overall best player. This team won’t be going anywhere without him playing a huge role. Now the good news is, he had an outstanding season this year, leading the team in points (65) and plus/minus (plus-22). He had a Norris Trophy level season on a team that largely disappointed. For him, it’s not as much about stepping up but maintaining that level of play. Whether he can do that after such a long lay off remains to be seen. There is no doubt, however, he needs to play at a high level for the Predators to make any noise.
All that stands between the Nashville Predators and the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs is a very winnable series against the Coyotes. The Predators are the better team and should win, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a cakewalk. The Coyotes are trying to make the postseason for the first time since 2012 and will be hungry. Nashville needs to play well as a whole to make sure they advance. However, it is vitally important that certain players are at the top of their game. The Predators probably will not win this series without Johansen, Forsberg, Saros, Ekholm, and Josi stepping up and playing huge roles in the series.
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