We are six games into the NHL season, and the Predators find themselves tied with Central division rivals Dallas and St. Louis. They have accrued 10 of a possible twelve points to date, winning five and losing just once.
Of course, hockey being the intangible game that it is, it’s also fair to say that the lone Predators defeat may well have been their best performance of the young season.
When we last spoke, the team had won their first three games, including two to start the campaign at Bridgestone Arena. However, as all three teams Nashville had conquered were “weak sister” (most probably non-playoff) teams come April, it was hard to gauge just how good the “perfect” Preds had been.
Our week started with the continuation of a three game road trip, and the first visit to the Islanders new home at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, NY.
The strong effort that led to the team’s first defeat of the young season began with the first goal of the season (second of his NHL career) from rookie forward Austin Watson. The spectacular play of Filip Forsberg and James Neal, who each notched a goal and an assist, should have on most nights meant a better outcome for the team. Isles goaltender Thomas Greiss outdueled Pekka Rinne, stopping 44 of 47 Preds shots. The team then moved on to Ottawa for their final game of the trip vs. the Senators.
With backup netminder Carter Hutton making his season debut, it was Neal providing early offense. His power-play goal in the first period staked the Preds to an early lead. Ottawa tied the game at the 15-second mark of the second period and then took the lead midway through the stanza.
However, Craig Smith, starting the season on a hot streak, added his third goal of the young campaign and the teams took a tie game into the third period. The Nashville power play continued firing on all cylinders as star defensemen Roman Josi and Shea Weber assisted on Neal’s second tally of the game, giving the team a narrow 3-2 lead.
Second-year Sens forward Mike Hoffman tied the game, beating Hutton with three and a half minutes to go in regulation. Nothing was settled in the NHL’s new 3-on-3 overtime, and the goalies were put to the test in the shootout.
Round one saw both Hutton and Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson make stops, while round two saw both give up goals. In round three Hutton stopped Hoffman, and it was Neal who capped his excellent offensive night with the shootout winner, and a 4-3 Nashville win.
While being outshot 41-25, the Preds could say they stole the second point in Ontario, and high marks to Hutton who stood tall with 38 saves and another couple of key ones in the shootout.
Returning home Tuesday night, Nashville’s opponents was the Tampa Bay Lightning who were the Eastern Conference representatives in a hard fought battle for the Stanley Cup vs. Chicago last spring. The Lightning feature incredible firepower up front with forward Steven Stamkos leading the charge for a team that plays fast and hard showcasing incredible passing. Tampa has an uncanny ability to deftly transition the puck up ice into dangerous shooting areas.
This is not to say that the game was all Lightning. In fact, it was Mike Fisher scoring in the final minute of the first period to give Nashville a 1-0 lead and thrilling the home fans witnessing some incredible action at both ends of the ice. As had happened in Ottawa, the second period began with Tampa tying the score on a Stamkos power-play goal and Nikita Kucherov giving the Bolts a 2-1 lead at 8:51.
About a minute and a half later, All-Star defenseman Shea Weber fired a blast off a Mike Ribeiro feed and the Preds tied the game. Tampa’s Ryan Callahan came back with a goal at 17:41, but again with just over a minute to go in the period t was Neal converting the pass from Forsberg for his fourth goal of the season to tie the score going into the third.
A beautiful pass from big Brian Boyle gave Tampa’s Erik Condra his second goal of the season, and Tampa again wrestled the lead from the Preds, but the heat continued for the team’s top forwards and, on a tremendous setup from Forsberg, Neal netted his fifth goal in the past three games and the Preds tied things up in regulation.
For the second straight game we had a reasonably uneventful overtime, which led once again to the shootout. Forsberg converted early, beating Ben Bishop in round one, and goose eggs followed on all remaining attempts. The team locked down their fifth win of the season by defeating their toughest challenger to date.
What have we learned through the first six games of the season?
Rinne and Hutton give the team a chance to win.
The top two lines (Fisher centering Forsberg and Neal, along with Ribeiro between Smith and Colin Wilson) are looking very strong, and have provided enough offense through the early going.
Considered by most to be the top defensive corps in the league, the Preds’ blueline took a hit with injuries to Ryan Ellis and Barret Jackman, both sitting out against Tampa. The spare defensemen that filled in (Anthony Bitetto and Victor Bartley) had to shake off a little rust facing such fleet competition in their season debuts.
The Preds complete a three game home stand with games Thursday vs Anaheim and Saturday vs. Pittsburgh (both 7pm starts.)
We will be back with you next Wednesday, and every week throughout the season as Nashville turns Smashville into a quest for the Cup.