The last thing the Nashville Predators expected this season was that they would finish last in the Central Division.
The last time it happened, 2008-09, also was the last time they failed to make the playoffs.
Both seem frighteningly possible following Thursday’s 3-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, which disappointed the latest sellout crowd at Bridgestone Arena and dropped the Predators further from playoff contention. With 10 games remaining, fewer than any other Western Conference team, they are 12th in the conference standings, albeit just two points behind eighth.
“Obviously, you have to worry about that a little bit,” center David Legwand said. “You have to get points every night and win hockey games and move on from there. That’s all we can look to do, and it starts Saturday and Sunday.”
The next two games are against another division rival, the Chicago Blackhawks. The first is at home and the second is on the road as Nashville continues a stretch of four straight and five of six against Central Division opponents.
Traditionally, the Predators could count on finishing ahead of the Blue Jackets, both head-to-head and in the standings. Prior to this season Nashville had won 49 of 69 games all-time against Columbus and 29 of 35 at home. As the Predators racked up seven playoff appearances in the last eight seasons, the Blue Jackets went only once.
Things started to turn, though, as soon as the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign opened and the Blue Jackets won 3-2 in shootout at Bridgestone Arena. It was Columbus’ second victory in Nashville’s building in more than six seasons.
This one was the Blue Jackets’ first regulation victory here since April 3, 2006 and clinched for them the season series, which they had not won since 2000-01, the season they entered the NHL. At one point, Nashville won 12 straight against Columbus and 17 in a row at home.
“They play more as a team now,” Nashville captain Shea Weber said. “They’ve always had good, skilled offensive players. I think now they’re just putting it all together, doing it as a group. Obviously it’s paying off.”
The Blue Jackets have won three straight and 11 of 16 and have climbed out of the division cellar.
The Predators lost for the fourth time in five games and the eighth time in their last 12.
It didn’t matter that they set a season-high with 39 shots on goal. In their first game since Martin Erat, who was tied for the team’s scoring lead, was traded to Washington they never led. Columbus pulled away with a pair of third-period goals, the first — and game-winner — by its high-profile trade deadline acquisition, Marion Gaborik.
Blue Jackets’ goalie Sergei Bobrovsky kept them in it, particularly early when he made eight saves in the first 2:03.
“They’re working as a full team,” defenseman Kevin Klein said. "They’re doing all of the little things. They’re doing really well defensively. They have a goaltender that’s playing really well right now, and they’re taking that five-guy mentality where everyone is chipping in.”
They’ve also chipped away at the difference between the teams that was so pronounced for so long.
One game remains between them, and that is the season finale April 27 at Columbus. By then, there’s any number of possibilities for where the Predators might be in the standings, and that includes looking up at the Blue Jackets.
“We’re in the final stretch here and we have to find ways to get points,” coach Barry Trotz said. “We’ve been here before … and we’ve put a string of games together and got in. Plain and simple, we just have to worry about the next game and put our absolute best effort in.”
• Briefly: Prior to the game defenseman Ryan Ellis and center Chris Mueller were recalled from Milwaukee. Both were in the lineup. Ellis played in place of Victor Bartley, who was sidelined by illness. … Forward Patrick Hornqvist labored to the bench with fewer than three minutes to play, clutching his right shoulder following a collision on the boards. He did not got to the locker room, though, and according to Trotz was prepared to take a final shift at the end of the game.