Mattias Ekholm, Kyle Turris, P.K. Subban and Matt Irwin Image by: John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images
Last season, the Predators squeaked into the post-season before taking down the West's best en route to a berth in the Stanley Cup final. This time around, Nashville looks primed to leave everyone in their dust well before the playoffs.
It took about a dozen games for the Nashville Predators to get going. Coming off last season’s trip to the Stanley Cup final, Nashville stumbled out of the starting blocks with back-to-back losses before eking out their first win, and as October turned to November, the Predators found themselves 12 games into the campaign with a .500 record and sitting behind all but the Minnesota Wild in the race for Central Division supremacy.
And then, as if everyone in the Nashville dressing room collectively decided they had seen enough, a switch flipped.
First came a win over the Anaheim Ducks, followed by a victory over the Los Angeles Kings. Those were followed by wins over three top Metropolitan Division clubs in the Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington Capitals and Cup final-created rival Pittsburgh Penguins. And the five-game run then has since been followed by streaks of four wins, three wins and a run that has seen the Predators accumulate 30 of a possible 36 points to become the league’s hottest team since the start of November. Nashville’s run over the past month-plus was punctuated Wednesday, too, with a 7-1 dismantling of the Vancouver Canucks. It was, as one would rightly assume, the largest margin of victory for the Predators this season, a contest that saw Nashville dominate from start to finish as they nearly doubled Vancouver’s shot total.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Predators find themselves right near the top of the Central Division and Western Conference, even after a so-so start to the season. With 30 games played, two fewer than the Kings and St. Louis Blues, Nashville sits a mere two points back of taking over first place in both the Central and the West. And if it isn’t clear by now, the Predators are a force to be reckoned with, a team to be feared.
As much was clear in early November when GM David Poile, having watched his defending Western Conference champions get off to a mediocre start, wriggled his way into the early season Matt Duchene blockbuster between the Avalanche and Senators, helping facilitate the move by sending additional pieces — Samuel Girard, Vladislav Kamenev and a 2018 second-round pick — to Colorado in order to pry center Kyle Turris out of Ottawa. The early declaration was that the sum of the three-team trade made the Avalanche the winner, but the early returns have the Predators comfortably out front. While Girard has proven himself to be a talented young rearguard, Turris has taken his game to a new level since arriving in Music City with three goals and 14 points in 15 games, putting him on pace to notch a career-best 69 points this season. Amazingly, though, Turris’ production is only good enough to put him into fifth in scoring on the Predators since his Nov. 5 acquisition.
That Turris isn’t the leading scorer over that span speaks to the incredible amount of offense Nashville has generated over the past six weeks. Since Nov. 3, the start of this run up the standings, the Predators have scored 71 goals in 18 games, nearly four per game. The next-best rate of scoring over the same span, a mark which belongs to the Winnipeg Jets, is nearly a half-goal less. Unsurprisingly, Nashville has five forwards among the top 50 scorers during that span – Turris, Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala.
Most frightening about the offensive capabilities the Predators have shown in recent weeks, though, is that it’s not simply a matter of the forward group giving opposing netminders nightmares. What many consider the league’s best blueline is also contributing on the scoresheet. The always steady Roman Josi, for instance, has three goals and 14 points over his past 18 games. Mattias Ekholm, whose career-best is eight goals and 35 points, has pumped home five goals and 14 points over his past 18 outings to put him on a 16-goal, 52-point pace. P.K. Subban’s two goals on Wednesday took him up to five goals and 11 points since Nov. 3 and gave him six goals and 20 points on the season for a 16-goal, 54-point pace. Even bottom-pairing defenders Alexei Emelin, Matt Irwin, Anthony Bitetto and Yannick Weber have kicked in points, combining for three goals and 15 points this season.
Now consider this: the Predators are without, but could soon have, their top offensive defenseman back in the lineup. Ryan Ellis is likely still a few weeks away from returning to action after off-season knee surgery, but his presence will give Nashville yet another high-scoring rearguard. His 16 goals were tops among Predators blueliners last season, while his 38 points ranked third. It’s his post-season performance that wowed the most, however. Ellis netted five goals and 13 points in 22 games, looking every bit like a rearguard destined to set new career bests this season. That will be a tall task given the time he’s missed, but there’s no reason he can’t improve on what has been an almost perpetually improving goals, assists and points pace.
Add in the fact Pekka Rinne is continuing his form from the post-season, as well, posting a .927 save percentage and 2.34 goals-against average to go along with two shutouts and the second-best 5-on-5 SP (.937) among starting netminders, and there’s not a single, solitary hole that can be poked in the way the Predators have been performing over the past month-and-a-half. That includes underlying numbers, where Nashville has been a better-than-average possession team and don’t have a combined shooting percentage and save percentage that would suggest there’s any great decline coming, even if the recent run has seen a significant boost in both categories.
Truth be told, the Predators are starting to look like a team that’s well aware it has some unfinished business, a group playing with a serious chip on its shoulder. So, while entering the post-season last year as a low-seeded underdog was all well and good, it appears Nashville is prepared to get back to the top of the mountain by way of sheer force. Top teams, beware, because it seems only a matter of time before the Predators may be looking at you through their rearview mirror.
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