After last night’s 5-1 win against the Vancouver Canucks, the NHL’s best record belongs to the Nashville Predators, now sporting a lofty 17-2-1 home record, and an overall mark of 29-9-4, good for 62 points, two in front of Pacific Division foes, the Anaheim Ducks, and a reasonable four point lead over their Central Division rival Chicago Blackhawks. Additionally, the Predators hold a game in hand against the Blackhawks, having played 42 games to Chicago’s 43 to date.
With a 7-1-2 mark in their previous 10 games, the Preds share the “hottest” record with a familiar coach, as former Nashville leader Barry Trotz has his Washington Capitals firing on all cylinders with a similar record over the past ten. The Caps now come to Bridgestone Arena to face Nashville Friday evening, and the game is sure to run the gamut of emotions in Trotz’ return to the building for the first time since the end of the 2013-14 season.
While Preds fans are already intensely familiar with the myriad of coaching records Trotz holds as the only coach in the team’s previous fifteen seasons, it was his tireless charitable work within the Nashville community that set him apart and made him a truly beloved figure with the loyal legion of Smashville fans.
There is no doubt that during the game, the team will honor their previous coach with what should be an extremely emotional package highlighting his rich history with the Predators, and since a majority of the current players were coached by Trotz, before the reigns were handed to current bench boss Peter Laviolette, there should be smiles, as well as perhaps a tear or two shed on the respective benches.
The Capitals are, of course, led on the ice by Alex Ovechkin, who continues to rack up points and paces the team with 22 goals. Center Nick Backstrom, Ovie’s linemate, leads the team with 42 points in 42 games. The Capitals’ starting goaltender, Braden Holtby, has had an excellent first half of the season, and has notched 21 of his team’s 23 wins to date. Meanwhile, the Preds will be forced to turn to backup netminder Carter Hutton, who saw his first home action last night, relieving All-Star Pekka Rinne early in the third period.
Rinne, forced to come out of the game after a collision between Predator defenseman Anton Volchenkov and Canuck forward Chris Higgins resulted in an endboard collision and Higgins on top of the Finnish goalie, as the two tumbled behind the net. UPDATE: The official word from the Predators is that Rinne will miss 3-5 weeks with a knee sprain. While both the team and its’ fans know that it can ill afford to be without their MVP for a long stretch of time, they also remember that Hutton filled in admirably for Rinne during the 13-14 season. However, because of the great success the team has had from day one this season, it may be a huge blow to the team, losing a player of his caliber for what appears to be a substantial period of time. Earlier last week, the Preds were forced to put defenseman Ryan Ellis on Injured Reserve, and while forwards James Neal, Taylor Beck and Matt Cullen all returned, Erik Nystrom also hit IR and will be out for the weekend games.
After the home game vs. Washington, the Predators leave immediately for Detroit and a Saturday night game against the Red Wings. For years Detroit was a consistent and constant foe for the Preds, but realignment a couple of seasons ago landed Detroit in the East, making the rivalry far less heated, and certainly less frequent. Tuesday the Preds play in Montreal against the Canadiens, and then the league shuts down regular season play in favor of the All Star break, and its’ game and ancillary events in Columbus, OH (next year, the 2016 All Star weekend will be held right here in Nashville!)
The Preds will have solid representation in Columbus next weekend as Coach Laviolette and members of his staff will coach one of the squads, rookie forward Filip Forsberg has been named to the Young Guns competition, and both Captain Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne will participate in the game. Cases could have been made for Roman Josi, and Mike Ribiero to be a part of the festivities, but with each of the 30 teams guaranteed to have at least one participant in the game, some deserving players had to be omitted.
An emotional return to Bridgestone for Caps head coach Barry Trotz on Friday, two “original six” road opponents on Saturday and Tuesday, Predators abound during All Star Weekend in Columbus, and of course, some major breath holding as we all await word on the severity of Rinne’s injury means there will be much to talk about when we reconvene next Wednesday.
‘Til then, follow @mdnathan on Twitter for updates, and say a prayer for Pekka over the next few days. We need our MVP to continue steering the mighty Preds ship!