Three teams occupy first place in the Central Division here in mid-December with the Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche all at 38 points. The Nashville Predators sit at 36 points, but with extra games played in hand.
Even after all of this winning for the Predators since climbing out of last place in November, they'll need to continue to stay hot to keep pace with Winnipeg, Dallas and Colorado. Eventually we should see some separation. The Predators have yet to face off with Dallas, but have beaten Colorado in their one meeting and have spilt two games with Winnipeg.
The simple question is this; do the Predators belong in this trio of teams battling for the top division spot, or are the Predators going to eventually come back down to Earth?
Predators are Getting Unbelievable Goaltending to Go Along with Better Defensive Play
The Predators have a current four game winning streak after defeating the Washington Capitals on Saturday, sweeping their back-to-back against Eastern Conference opponents. They had a wild, high-scoring overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes on the front end.
What gives me a lot of optimism that the Predators do belong in the conversation when discussing contenders in the Central Division is Juuse Saros playing out of his mind right now. Maybe the best we've seen him over this long of a stretch in his entire NHL career.
Saros' streak of spectacular play in net directly correlates with the Predators' winning ways since winning in a battle of last place teams on November 18. Saros had lost five consecutive starts before ending that with a 26-save victory over the Avalanche.
Since then, Saros has won 10 of his last 11 starts with three of his last four starts only surrendering one goal. This is the ultimate weapon that balances the scales when you look head to head at Dallas, Colorado or Winnipeg.
The special teams, and not even so much the power play but the penalty kill, keeps improving. The Predators did give up a 5-on-3 goal to Washington last night, but overall they're becoming very solid in this department. You'll need that to contend with the top teams in the division.
Trotz over the offseason saw a need to make this team more speed oriented to keep up with the rest of the NHL. He's getting very positive results from his decision making sooner than any of us really could've realistically expected.
My ultimate x-factor in all of this working so quickly for the Predators has to be Ryan O'Reilly. Without him in the picture, the Predators are back to being a very plain and ordinary team. He holds everything together around him.
Predators are Getting Reliable Veteran Leadership to Go Along with Young Talent
I spoke about this going into the season; the Predators have an awesome blend of veterans and youth. General Manager Barry Trotz saw the need to add Ryan O'Reilly and Gustav Nyquist to the forwards for some on-ice leadership, while not taking away the path forward with a younger and faster lineup.
We're seeing the results speak for themselves when you have a balanced lineup. Even with Filip Forsberg having an unbelievable season so far, it's not just him. It's really everyone, and that makes the Predators a worthy contender against almost anyone in the NHL.
On paper the Predators aren't better than Dallas or Colorado, and in a seven game series those two would be the understandable favorites. I don't feel the same about Winnipeg. I could see that going to seven games and see who wins in the do or die situation.
I'm really intrigued to see the first season matchup between the Predators and Stars on December 23. This will be an ultimate measuring stick game for the Predators. Dallas is still my prohibitive favorite not only to win the Central Division, but the Western Conference and even the Stanley Cup. I want to see how the Predators handle loaded Stars roster.
The Predators had the ferocious comeback win over the Avalanche in November, the only meeting between the two. They don't see each other again until the first week of March, right before the trade deadline.
The Predators have one more regular season meeting with the Jets that won't happen until near the end of the season, an April 9 matchup in Nashville.
Not all of the analytics models have fallen for the red hot Predators yet. MoneyPuck only has the Predators' chances of making the playoffs at 37 percent, with a 14 percent chance of making it to the 2nd round. Somewhere they haven't been since 2018.
Greg Amundsen, creator of "Puck Luck Analytics" currently has the Predators outperforming his preseason projections by a significant margin. As of December 17, his projections show the Predators finishing with 92 points and coming up ultimately behind Colorado, Winnipeg and Dallas.
It's important to always remember that losing slumps are likely going to happen. It's an 82-game grind. With the way the Predators are playing, and if they keep doing the things that matter like winning loose puck battles and being the more aggressive skating team, they'll avoid the long losing streaks that can destroy your season.
A lot of hockey left to be played, but the Predators are ahead of schedule. You hope they can avoid the injury misfortune and keep showing signs of improvement in key areas.