Having lost four of their last five games in the month of January, the Nashville Predators turned a page on their calendar and have since turned in five winning performances throughout the team’s first six games during the month of February. Now, Nashville finds themselves holding their largest lead over the remaining 29 National Hockey League teams to date. Sitting atop the standings, boasting a record of 36-12-6, good for 78 points, the Preds hold a reasonable three point cushion over their nearest competitors, the Pacific Division leading Anaheim Ducks. Additionally, last night at Bridgestone Arena, in a matchup of the top teams from both the Eastern and Western Conferences, Nashville hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning, featuring their all-world captain, Steven Stamkos. While Stamkos was held off the scoresheet, the Preds let a 2-0 lead slip away in the third period, only to come back (as they have done so many times this season) and take the game by a final score of 3-2 thanks to a James Neal goal with just 33 seconds remaining in overtime, sending the 16,362 fans home happy. Goals by Seth Jones and Taylor Beck, coupled with stellar goaltending from Pekka Rinne gave Nashville their early lead, but the tenacious Lightning battled back with early markers in the third from Brett Connolly and Nikita Kucherov, as well as some timely goaltending from Russian rookie netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy, who throughout the game delivered a couple of highlight reel saves, including a toe save off the stick of Predators center Mike Ribiero.
Brimming with confidence that each game brings new opportunity for improvement, the Predators shook off a 5-2 loss vs. the Ducks last Thursday and rebounded with a tremendous 3-2 regulation win against the Rangers on Saturday afternoon. The arena was packed, and a reasonably sized New York contingent gave a little push back to the home team fans, as the Rangers led early, 1-0, then the Preds, on goals by defensemen Roman Josi and Shea Weber, led 2-1, the Rangers tied the game at 2 and finally, with a little over 7 minutes to go, Ribiero snapped a shot past Rangers netminder Cam Talbot, playing in place of an injured Henrik Lundqvist and the Preds held on for the win. Flying to Florida for a game against the Panthers on Sunday afternoon, the team turned to backup goalie Carter Hutton to spell Rinne, who needed the day off after the heat of the Rangers contest. Hutton looked good in the first, but surrendered a couple of goals in the second, and the team found themselves staring down the jaws of defeat when defenseman Seth Jones and rookie forward Filip Forsberg connected both early and then late in the period, which sent the game into overtime. The additional five minutes did not solve anything, and the teams went into the shootout. It was in the fourth round that the gifted rookie Forsberg fired the puck into they net, and so they stopped, and called it a day. 3-2 Preds win!
As the team is in the midst of a four game homestand, this Thursday the Central Division Winnipeg Jets come to town, and then on Saturday, it’s the New Jersey Devils. On Tuesday of next week, the homestand ends with a game against the San Jose Sharks. Hopefully, a combination of injured players (Defensemen Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, and forward Colin Wilson) will find their way back into the lineup soon, but honestly, with Coach Laviolette seemingly pushing all the right buttons, it would be unfair to say that there’s much else that needs improving with the players that take the ice on a game-by-game basis. Fill-in players like Victor Bartley, and most recently, Milwaukee call-up Anthony Bitetto have not exposed the Predators defense, which is still ranked 3rd in the entire NHL, despite having missed over 3 weeks of Rinne in the net. Unsung heroes seem to come to the forefront each game. As mentioned earlier, fourth line grinding forward Taylor Beck chipped in a key goal last night vs. Tampa, and coupled with his linemates Eric Nystrom and Paul Gaustad have wreaked havoc on the opposing team’s defense. Also of note, sophomore blueliner Jones has gone on quite a scoring rampage in recent weeks, dating back just prior to the January 8th injury to Ellis. Up to that point, Jones had only hit the twenty minute mark in terms of time on ice once through the team’s first forty games. Since then, Jones has played fifteen games, averaged well over twenty-three minutes of ice time and seen his offensive output increase by four goals and six assists, including points in the past five contests (2 G, 3 A). Even when Ellis returns, expect more sensational play from the 20 year old Jones, who has seen his responsibilities rise, and his maturity soar over the past month.
To say I am excited and optimistic about the future of this team would be a gross understatement. Despite the amazing, consistent monster goalkeeping from Rinne, the incredible team defense led by Weber, Josi, Jones and the currently injured Ellis and Ekholm, it is the offense, now ranted fifth overall in the entire league that has to have all Preds fans excited, because it just feels like it’s getting better all the time. The once dismal special teams (power play, and penalty kill) are now clearly in the middle of the pack and the improvement is so noticeable it’s almost scary to think how good this team is becoming. Each player stays focused on working together with his teammates to create an almost invincible attitude without any level of pretense or cockiness. These guys just DO IT.
If I have to bring up a single negative, it has nothing to do with the team and it’s play. It’s just a shame that the game last night, as well as the game this coming Thursday are not being broadcast locally by Fox Sports. This team needs to be seen, and seen often. Now is the time for Nashvillians to really support your Predators, and if you can’t make it out to the arena to see this special season continue to unfold, you should at least be able to watch it on television.
Join us again next Wednesday, and follow on Twitter for in-game tweets and observations on this magical Predators season.