Five days ago the Nashville Predators were looking pretty rough, sporting a 1-2-1 record after four games of a seven-game road trip.
They’d come into Phoenix on the heels of a tough shootout loss to the Anaheim Ducks and fallen flat, losing 4-0 to a Coyotes team that had been previously given up four goals per game. Worse, it was the second time in three games that they’d failed to beat the opposing goalie. They were without their leading scorer, Patric Hornqvist, who had come out with extra intensity in the early going only to fall to a sprained knee in the Ducks game. And they were facing back-to-back games against the defending Stanley Cup champions and an undefeated San Jose Sharks team with the league’s second-best offense.
This morning, as they spend a day in Nashville before going to St. Louis for the last game of the trip, two consecutive shootout wins on the back of Pekka Rinne have pushed the team’s record to 3-2-1 for the whole trip. That guarantees that the Predators will average at least one point per game for the trip, more if they can win in St. Louis on Tuesday.
So goes the roller-coaster ride that is the shortened 2013 NHL season.
The consecutive wins against Los Angeles and San Jose saw the Nashville Predators play the style of hockey that’s been their hallmark for more than a decade: a persistent forecheck, tight defense, lots of created turnovers, and a stellar performance between the pipes. Some of those parts had been there in spurts earlier on but the team hadn’t yet put them all together, and it showed; the combination of them all working together made the Preds very, very difficult to handle.
In L.A. the Preds took an early lead, lost it, and then played tight-checking hockey against a bigger team with many more offensive weapons for 52 minutes to force a shootout. In San Jose they improved upon the defensive formula and kept the league’s second most potent offense scoreless for the first 53:39, all without injured top-line forward Martin Erat. In each game Pekka Rinne was perfect at even strength and surrendered just one goal on the power play. The penalty kill’s 9-for-11 performance (81.8 percent) in those two games was a few ticks better than the 15-for-19 (78.9 percent) in the first games of the road trip.
Perhaps the most promising development aside from Rinne’s dominance came late in the game against San Jose, when the Predators outshot the Sharks 9-7. It was the first period in regulation where the team had outshot the opposition since the third period of the 3-0 loss to St. Louis on January 24th. One of those shots was the goal scored by Sergei Kostitsyn on the feed from Colin Wilson.
Kostitsyn, with just five shots on goal in eight games, has been one of the worst offenders on the team when it comes to not pulling the trigger. To see him opt for the shot is as welcome a change as any I can imagine for the Preds, especially as part of a team-wide pattern.
When the Preds’ schedule was first released, I wrote this about the road trip:
If the earliest portion of the Nashville Predators schedule sees the team walk away from its road trip with a winning record, they’ll have a leg up on a strong Central Division. If they can break even or close to it they’ll still be within striking distance. And if the road treats them harshly, they’ll be scrambling to make up ground from the early going.
The importance of those points this early in the season, especially after the shutout losses where the team looked like a mediocre AHL team could give it a serious challenge, can’t be overstated. The two wins against the Kings and the Sharks allowed the Nashville Predators to keep pace in the Central Division, which is once again proving to be the toughest division in the entire NHL. (Central teams have a combined 53 points between them at the moment, the most in the league.)
Falling in too big a hole early could have been disastrous later in the season. Now the team is back to averaging more than a point per game, the bare minimum they’ll have to do all year to make the playoffs. There’s still plenty of work to do. But as the first sixth of the season comes to a close, this is a moment to feel good about where the Nashville Predators are.