OK, hockey fans. Who’s the hottest team in the National Hockey League?
Answer: The Anaheim Ducks, who were the league’s whipping boy throughout much of the first half of the season, but have now won nine of their last ten games and have vaulted towards the top slot in the Pacific Division, just two points behind the consistently strong Los Angeles Kings. In fact, if you’re one of those people who always seem to find five dollars on the street each time you look down, you understand the Anaheim Ducks.
No longer called “Mighty” by their friends and fans, the Anaheim Ducks are a study in minimalism. They get the job done, usually within the confines of a sixty minute hockey game, and usually with the other team suffering bumps, bruises and humiliation served with a side of sadness. The Kings were top dog since rebounding from their 0-3 start to the season, but the Ducks seem to be pushing the envelope in hopes of grabbing the top seed.
OK, so, hockey fans. This brings me to the question, who’s the SECOND hottest team in the National Hockey League, and why are they still trapped in a wild card position in the Central Division? This time, yes, the answer is YOUR Nashville Predators, who have recorded at least a point in ten consecutive games, going 7-0-3 (17 of a possible 20 points) and find themselves still slightly mired in the middle, but now appear to at least have locked up a coveted spot in the postseason.
When the Preds started the season 11-3-3 and looked to be firing on all cylinders, they were extolling the virtues of their defense with a top six that looked unworldly, thanks in part to the acquisition of veteran St. Louis rearguard Barret Jackman, and his prized partner, third year pro, Seth Jones performing as the third pairing to the stellar Shea Weber – Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis – Mattias Ekholm pairings.
Pekka Rinne was off to a hot start, and although the forwards were looking a bit inconsistent in the scoring column, the team was achieving solid results, and grabbing wins with regularity.
Unlike the 2014-15 season, when their hot start had the team in first place, this season, despite the team’s tremendous start, both Dallas and St. Louis had outpaced the Preds to that point, with Dallas winning 16 of their first 20 game, and the Blues grabbing 27 of their first 40 points.
The Preds took off on a road trip beginning on November 20th, and played three games in four nights, losing all three games by scores of 4-0, 4-0 and 3-0. Rinne suffered all three defeats, and the team’s inconsistent scoring proved to be wildly futile. The sky fell on the fans of Smashville. Coach Laviolette cited the fact that the team had outshot their opponents in two of the three games, by decidedly wild margins, so we were left to wonder if Rinne was healthy, and of course, could any of the team’s offensive stars (Forsberg, Neal, and company) put the puck in the net?
Wins were hard to come by, and usually sandwiched in between tough and multiple losses, and from that point through all of December, the team struggled to find any daylight. General Manager David Poile had his hand forced, and pulled the trump card (no pun intended).
Reaching out to Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kakalainen, “The Trade” was made, dealing Jones to the Jackets for star center, Ryan Johansen. Johansen, a year older than Jones was a proven scorer that would give the Preds a solid number one center, and move pieces like Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro into their respective places further down the lineup.
All seemed ready for a reset. What happened then was certainly of further concern.
Despite Johansen seemingly fitting in immediately with his new club, and producing at a pace expected of him, the team continued to struggle, and lost five consecutive games in early January (four after the deal) and when the team woke up on the morning of January 16, for a game that night at home vs. Minnesota, their record of 19-17-8 was good for just a single point ahead of cellar dwellers, Winnipeg, and out of the playoff picture.
Starting Carter Hutton in nets during a home game was a rare sight, but Laviolette and staff knew there had to be change for change sake, and Hutton, who had lost his previous two starts, delivered a whitewash of the Wild, (3-0) in front of the hometown fans, and perhaps the ship had been righted.
With anticipation, the team faced off a couple nights later, at home, against Chicago, and Rinne returned to the nets. When a 4-1 loss ensued, fans questioned why the coaching staff went back to Rinne, coming off a Hutton shutout. The message was clear that the team had a number one netminder (Rinne,) and was determined to get him on track for the remainder of the season.
Enter the next phase of the Preds development.
On January 21st, the team began a four game swing of Western Canada and returned home the following week with four wins in regulation time. Rinne winning the first three contests, and Hutton grabbing the win in the final game of the trip. The team then returned home and improbably lost their next two games, before a win, and then two more losses. However, in their last loss, at Tampa Bay, the team grabbed a point, losing in overtime.
Going to Hutton in Florida the next game saw another shutout for the backup, and another home start earned, which also turned out to be an overtime loss. Rinne grabbed the net back and recorded a shutout against Boston, but then he dropped one in OT to Los Angeles. In fact, the team was now 1-10 in overtime games, and the three-on-three format was proving killer to the Preds, losing points that would help to cement a berth in the post season.
The story continues that the Preds hit the road, recorded consecutive victories in Montreal, Toronto and Chicago and returned home serving the fans wins against St. Louis (a decisively sound beating, 5-0) and last night against a Dallas team that continued to lead the Central Division.
Now we look at the Preds record over the last 18 games: 12-3-3 and 6-0-1 in their last seven. Firing on all cylinders? You betcha! Forsberg has been on fire with two natural hat tricks in the past week, and voted one of the NHL’s top stars for the month of February. Calle Jarnkrok has quietly grabbed thirteen goals (after just seven all of last season,) now skating on wing along side Neal and Johansen, and while the prized acquisition from Columbus has been cooled considerably, the balance of the lines remains a threat to all that defend against them, and the team is winning, so the concern is minimalized.
This week, the team plays New Jersey on Thursday night, and then hits the road for another chunk of time. In fact, six of the following seven games are away from Bridgestone, with the lone home tilt being on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) against the New York Islanders.
The team has won eight of their last nine road games, so confidence is high. Standings at this point are fascinating, as the Central leaders, Dallas, have fallen into a points deadlock with both Chicago and St. Louis, all have 83, and the Preds are eight behind at 75. Wins are even more critical as March marches on.
Poile made no further moves at the trade deadline, feeling like the deal he pulled off in January would suffice at this point, and pointing to last season’s deal which changed team chemistry, decided he had the horses that would be solid enough to run the race. So, buckle up fans, the final turn awaits us. The second hottest team in hockey is streaking towards the Stanley Cup playoffs!