We pulled down our 2014 calendars and tacked up the shiny new 2015 edition, and the Nashville Predators headed west for a brief two game road trip that presented perhaps their stiffest challenge of the NHL season. First up, a date with the Stanley Cup champion LA Kings, who, in late November, had dropped a tough decision via shootout at Bridgestone Arena. To say that the matchup at Staples Center would provide a myriad of emotions would be an understatement at best. The early Saturday afternoon affair began shakily for the Preds, as the Kings tallied first after just 32 seconds had passed in the opening period. Nashville, however, responded with three consecutive goals in the ensuing nine minutes and chased starting goaltender Jonathan Quick to the bench in favor of backup Martin Jones. The Preds increased their lead to 5-1 against Jones with two quick goals to start the second period, but the Cup champs returned the favor with a pair against Pekka Rinne.
Midway through the third period, Preds forward Olli Jokinen scored what appeared to be a backbreaking goal against the Kings, and a 6-3 lead was protected until very late in the game. With just two minutes and one second left to go in regulation time, the Kings struck, and struck and STRUCK, and a bewildered and uncharacteristically rattled Predators team found themselves heading to overtime with the score knotted at six. Overtime, however was short lived as defenseman Roman Josi, earlier victimized on a few of the Kings tallies, corralled a Filip Forsberg feed and scored just eighteen seconds into extra time, and the Preds earned their two points for the afternoon.
Back-to-back games took the team down the 5 Freeway to Anaheim where the Sunday challenge was to face the NHL leading Ducks. Coming off the wild LA game, the team knew they would have to tighten things up in the defensive zone, and would do so in front of their backup netminder, Carter Hutton, who drew a rare starting assignment, giving Rinne a night off. Once again the opposition struck first, and the first period ended with a 1-0 Duck lead. However, blueliners Mattias Ekholm and Seth Jones sandwiched a goal from Anaheim’s Corey Perry and things were knotted at two late in the second stanza.
With less than three minutes to go in the frame, Craig Smith potted a power play goal, and the Preds had their first lead of the night. Hutton made some key saves as Anaheim threw all they could at their opponents, but again, with less than three minutes to go in the third period, Duck defenseman Francois Beauchemin delivered the equalizer, again sending the teams into an overtime situation. Nothing was solved in the five minute extra frame, and the teams headed to a shootout which saw the Ducks prevail for a 4-3 victory. Despite the overtime loss, the Predators headed back home with three of four points and a share of first place in the Central Division.
Last night’s opponents, the Carolina Hurricanes, arrived in town with a dismal 12-23-4 record, good for dead last in the Eastern Conference, and just one point ahead of the NHL’s bottom dwelling Edmonton Oilers. Amusingly, it was less than a decade ago that the Canes and Oilers were battling for a Stanley Cup that Carolina claimed behind stellar goaltending from then rookie Cam Ward.
Ward got the nod against Rinne and the Preds, and for the third consecutive game, Nashville fell behind 1-0. That score held steady through two periods, and little seemed to be going right for the hometown heroes. At 4:43 of the third period, defenseman Ryan Ellis knotted the score, but the Canes answered a few minutes later on the power play. Mike Fisher was next to tie things up at two with a nifty rebound off a Colin Wilson shot. Almost five minutes later, Viktor Stalberg fed Roman Josi for a shot that wired in behind Ward, and the Predators came from behind for a thrilling 3-2 win.
Not to be lost in the excitement, impressive rookie Filip Forsberg notched his 38th point of the season with a third period assist, and set a new rookie scoring mark for the team, and yes, he still has more than half a season remaining to add to his total!
Thursday, the Dallas Stars come to town, and then on Saturday afternoon the team plays against the Wild in Minnesota. On Tuesday, the Preds will face off against the Vancouver Canucks. Three more Western Conference rivals that could really cement not only the Preds post season hopes, but perhaps solidify their hold on first place in the Central Division, where they currently hold a two point lead over the Chicago Blackhawks, with a game in hand.
It feels like this has been the most exciting stretch of hockey for the Preds this season, as they have gone 7-1-2 in their last 10 games, picking up 16 of a possible 20 points. Contributions are coming from virtually every player on the team, and the coaching staff continues to push all the right buttons, making all the right decisions. Factor in some injuries to key forwards James Neal, and Matt Cullen, and you just have to marvel at the consistency of the Predators play. Sure there’s room for improvement, such as not falling behind early, or the odd meltdown like those two minutes in LA, but this team is flying, and the entire hockey world knows that a date with the Preds usually spells frustration for their opponents.
Happy New Year, and head out to Bridgestone Arena to cheer on one of the elite teams in pro hockey, the Nashville Predators.