Pekka Rinne (John Russel/Getty Images)
Stanley Cup champion Nashville Predators? It might not be as far-fetched as you think. Drawing the Predators in the playoffs could be devastating in the West, especially with a healthy Pekka Rinne on Nashville’s side.
The Nashville Predators are currently leading the NHL, and the tough Western Conference, with 84 points. They’ve won six straight. Yet still, they’re rarely talked about as a serious Stanley Cup contender.
When it comes to dominance of this season, how the Predators are overlooked or passed over as one of the most likely Stanley Cup champions is befuddling. Even Las Vegas is giving the Chicago Blackhawks better odds. The same Blackhawks who have needed a shootout and overtime to solve the Predators and the same Chicago squad that sits nine points back of Nashville in the Central Division.
Why the lack of respect for the Predators? It might be because they’ve historically been a team that fights for every point they get or because some still view them as that defensive squad that plays suffocating, cling-to-every-one-goal-lead hockey. That’s not this team and this postseason could be the one that changes everything in Music City.
First, to expel the myth that Nashville plays a boring game. There are only seven teams in the entire league – little more than one-fifth of the NHL – that have a combined shot total, for and against, of over 59 per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Nashville is one of them, sitting right in sixth spot at 59.5. The others are Colorado (59.8), Toronto (60.3), Ottawa (61.1), Dallas (61.4) and Chicago (62.7). That’s an increase of more than two shots per 60 minutes at even strength which is a significant increase in the big picture. In every Nashville game this season there have been more pucks on goal than 24 other teams.
That’s the opposite of a boring game. Sure, there’s very little high risk, high reward play in Nashville, but it’s a steady-paced game that fits the Predator’s roster.
And though Nashville isn’t involved in many back and forth, high scoring affairs, that’s simply due to the fact that Pekka Rinne has played the best hockey of his career this season and he’s done it in such a fashion that he’s a mortal lock for a Vezina Trophy nomination.
Heading into Thursday’s game against the Metropolitan Division-leading New York Islanders, Rinne, who will likely get the call as the Predators look for their seventh straight victory, is second in the league in goals-against average and save percentage with marks of 1.94 and .932, respectively. He trails only Carey Price in those categories. Not to mention Rinne has the most wins of any goalie, 34, ahead of Price by two. And that’s with Rinne missing eight games along the way to a lower-body injury. He’s been on an entirely new level this season.
Consider, also, that Rinne has not lost two straight starts this season. And, partially because of Rinne and partially because of their outstanding play with the puck, the Predators have only lost consecutive games twice this season – both instances occurring when Carter Hutton was tasked with minding the net for Nashville.
It’s no coincidence that Nashville has been so dominant, either. While teams like Los Angeles, Tampa Bay and Chicago are spoken of as dominant puck possession teams, the Predators are right there alongside them. At 5-on-5, Nashville’s Corsi For percentage of 52.7 percent ranks only behind the Jets (52.8), Islanders (53.4), Lightning (53.7), Red Wings (53.9), Blackhawks (54) and Kings (54.8). When the score is close in the first two periods, Nashville ranks up among the same six teams, with Pittsburgh being the only team to move ahead of them at 5-on-5 Corsi For close.
And while you could point to the Predators’ 5-on-5 PDO of 102.3 – which measures combined shooting and save percentages – and say that it means their luck is bound to run out, the flip side of that shows that the teams that usually suffer a significant fall are the teams that have a high PDO combined with a lousy possession numbers. Nashville is not one of those teams.
Of course, the Predators having league leading goaltending has something to do with that. Their 5-on-5 save percentage is .938, which is best in the league, and with the score close that number jumps to .944, more than .05 better than the next closest team.
Even if Nashville is to slide out of their tremendous play of late, their team offense or team defense has been there to pick them right back up again. Gone are the days when the team was led by veteran stars of yesteryear or a ragtag group of second-liners turned into a tight-checking group.
Their top scorers this season are the remarkable Filip Forsberg (19 goals, 50 points), Mike Ribeiro (11 goals, 48 points), Shea Weber (14 goals, 42 points), Roman Josi (10 goals, 40 points) and Colin Wilson (18 goals, 38 points). While the marquee name still may not be there – save Weber, a defenseman with a cannon of a shot – that’s quite the top five. Add to it that the team has a legitimate 20- to 30-goal scorer in James Neal, and it’s no wonder the Predators are in the position they’re in.
And while Weber and Rinne are the two biggest stars, not enough can be said about the play of Josi. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which even GM David Poile believed that Josi could step in and fill the shoes of the departed Ryan Suter, but Josi has performed admirably in that role. Add to it now that the Predators acquired Cody Franson from the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Nashville has the best defensive corps in the league. That's not to mention that Mike Santorelli, an advanced stats darling for his two-way play, also came over in the Franson deal.
This isn’t a team that is going to continuously put themselves on the highlight reel or make for appointment television, but they’re a team that has, under new coach Peter Laviolette, found a system that works and are running it to perfection. With a healthy Rinne and a roster that’s solid if not star-studded, the Predators shouldn’t be considered as an also-ran, they should be looked at as a team that could win the whole thing.
Come playoff time, it’ll be on the Predators to show that the regular season wasn’t just a fluke. The numbers support them, so now it’s time for them to make believers out of everyone.