Two wins in a row usually isn’t much to crow about, but when the pair of victories come after a five-game losing streak, they do seem a little more impressive.
So what has changed and improved for Nashville over their last two games?
–Scoring early: Until Tuesday’s win over the New York Rangers, the Predators had not scored the first goal in any of their previous five games (in which they were 0-4-1). For a club that plays a team-defense game and produces offense off counterattacking, when the Predators do not tally the first goal in a game they are instantly forced to make adjustments to their game plan. Because Nashville doesn’t have a superstar group of forwards they often cannot “naturally” create scoring chances, so they have to overly-involve their defensemen and take shots at creating odd-man rushes (this opens up the Preds team-defensive front and allows the opposition more offensive opportunities than desired). In Tuesday’s win over the Rangers, the Preds were able to score the first two goals of the game and were able to play the style they desire throughout the contest. Scoring two quick goals with the man advantage in Thursday’s triumph over the Stars was enough to counteract giving up the game’s first goal and led Nashville to their second-straight victory. (The Preds are 11-0-1 when leading after the first period).
–Power play: The return of Shea Weber has not only helped the Preds on the defensive side of the puck, but it’s also given their power play a major boost. Weber has long been a focal point on Nashville’s setup with the man advantage and while his booming shot is always a nice thing to have, his vision and passing while breaking out from the defensive zone and assistance in puck rotation in the offensive zone are almost as important. When the Preds gave up the first goal in the Dallas game there was a “here we go again” feeling (Nashville was winless the last five times they hadn’t tallied first) but two, quick power play goals in 28 seconds and both in the final minute of the first period completely changed the game’s storyline. The first PP goal on the five-on-three advantage was particularly encouraging as the Preds were able to successfully give Patric Hornqvist a wide-open look in the low slot.
–Improved goalie play: On Tuesday, head coach Barry Trotz gave Carter Hutton his first start in goal in a month. Hutton–and the team in front of him–immediately responded well and have now only allowed two goals in their last two games. Just over a month ago when Trotz made the move to put Marek Mazanec in goal the Preds were coming off consecutive 5-0 losses and Hutton’s play and confidence were clearly quite shaky. Mazanec had quite a run in the Preds net for the next four weeks but when he stumbled, Trotz went back to Hutton, who has played very well despite the time off and has picked up 63 saves on the last 65 shots he’s faced.
–Quality of opponent: It must be noted that Nashville has not exactly played top-tier competition in their last two contests. Although it was nice to catch Dallas in the standings with the win on Thursday, neither the Rangers (15-17-1) or the Stars (14-11-5) are currently in playoff standing, so if Nashville wants to find itself back in the postseason this spring these were two wins that were “supposed” to happen. A much bigger test stands in Nashville’s path tonight as the Preds face-off against the San Jose Sharks, not only a top team in the Western Conference but a top-tier squad in the NHL.
With two wins in their two games, the Predators have turned at least some kind of corner–whether they get steam-rolled by a bus after doing so–will be seen tonight. A victory against the Sharks will put Nashville six points out of a playoff spot and help to legitimize their other two recent wins.