The following is the latest installment of Jeremy K. Gover’s bi-weekly column From the Press Box. Every other Tuesday, Jeremy explores a popular discussion topic as well as gives you insight from players, coaches and fans right here on TheGameNashville.com.
Can the 2014-15 Nashville Predators win the Stanley Cup? Absolutely.
But let’s not get carried away.
A 16-5-2 record has Predators fans excited for the future and rightfully so. They began the month of December – the third month of the season – sitting atop the Western Conference and tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the entire National Hockey League. A healthy Pekka Rinne is considered a front runner for the Vezina Trophy, Swedish phenom Filip Forsberg garnered Rookie of the Month honors and the defense has allowed the fewest goals in the NHL.
In short, they look poised to make a serious run.
“You don’t want to get too comfortable even though we’ve had a good start,” Rinne said. “That’s the one thing you try to remind yourself of. But, at the same time, I like the confidence level we have in the locker room; that we can play against anybody in the league.”
This is a hockey club that spent over a decade earning a reputation for always being competitive. Heck, their first ever regular season game was decided 1-0. In 2012-13 and most of 2013-14, however, the opposite was true.
Two seasons ago, Nashville finished with the worst offense (2.27 goals/game), scored three goals between February 27 and March 7 (three games) and lost 10 of their final 11 contests.
Last year, they suffered two different four-game losing streaks, two different five-game losing streaks, had back-to-back 5-0 losses to the Winnipeg Jets and New Jersey Devils, lost Rinne for 51 games due to an infection in his surgically repaired hip, played musical chairs in the crease as a result, lost 11 games in either the shootout or overtime and had one of the worst penalty kills in the league (80.2%).
Today, those struggles seem so far in the rear view mirror that they’re completely out of view. A new coach, a new top line, a healthy Rinne and a new way of doing things has this Predators team (and its fans) believing.
And who can blame them? They’ve already won more shootout games than all of last season, James Neal set a franchise record for most goals in the month of October (seven), Forsberg leads the NHL in plus/minus (plus-20), Shea Weber and Roman Josi are the best defensive pair in the sport and Rinne leads the league in wins with 16.
Of course, getting the players to acknowledge the accolades can be tricky.
“I think we’re more steady-as-we-go but, at the same time, I think everybody realizes where we’re at,” Rinne admitted. “When there’s a game that gives you a chance to jump on top of the Western Conference or on top of the league, it is something that we want to take advantage of.”
Without a doubt, this is a time for celebration in Smashville. The success of this hockey club is in stark contrast to the past two years. Matter of fact, it’s also in stark contrast to their Nashville sporting brethren.
The Tennessee Titans are a putrid 2-10, Vanderbilt finished 3-9 and the Nashville Sounds collapsed in the final weeks of the year to miss the AAA post season. As a result, the place to be in Music City is, in fact, Bridgestone Arena.
Probably the best part about their success? It’s coming in all different shapes and sizes. The Predators have boat-raced teams (the 9-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs comes to mind) and have had more conventional victories but they’ve also won 11 one-goal games.
“We’ve had a lot of games where we’ve got down but came back and scored a few goals to get the win,” Rinne said. “I feel like everybody’s pretty comfortable playing in those situations and that’s a good sign. But it’s still early in the season. You have to work so hard to win games and every game is so tight.”
Nashville has 59 games left on the regular season slate so a lot can happen in that span. They have all five of their annual meet-ups against their Central Division rival the Minnesota Wild, all three against the Pacific Division power Anaheim Ducks, two more against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings (both on the road) and three more against Vladimir Tarasenko and the St. Louis Blues.
Of course, if we’re being fair, the remaining schedule isn’t all daunting.
Nashville also has 26 games left against the inferior Eastern Conference. That includes two games against the struggling Buffalo Sabres, two games against the lowly Carolina Hurricanes and two games against the disappointing Philadelphia Flyers as well as one more against the banged up Columbus Blue Jackets.
As we’ve seen all too often, however, games aren’t played on paper.
“Everybody in the NHL’s good,” Matt Cullen said. “Sometimes you catch a team struggling but it doesn’t matter. On any given night, any team can beat you so you need to be on top of your game.”
To his point, the Sabres have the worst offense in the league and are fighting to be the winner of the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel sweepstakes yet they’ve swept their season series with the San Jose Sharks.
“Sometimes, when you know your opponent is struggling, you can kinda ease your way into a game,” Cullen said. “But I think we do a good job of addressing that before games and make sure everyone’s aware that ‘listen, we’ve gotta get on them right away and take the game to them. We can’t ease into it.’”
Nevertheless, a 16-5-2 start after their previous two seasons is truly something to be excited about if you’re a Predators fan. And being one of the top teams in the West and the entire league this deep into the year certainly warrants optimism.
There’s a long way to go – 59 games then 16 wins in the playoffs – but this year’s Predators team looks they absolutely could make a run at Lord Stanley.
But let’s not get carried away just yet.
PHOTO CREDIT: Sarah Fuqua