While it’s true that they haven’t clinched a playoff spot just yet, it appears as if the Nashville Predators are well on their way.
The Preds started the 2015-16 campaign on a tear. In October, they were 7-1-2. They followed that with a 4-2-1 start to the month of November for a combined 11-3-3 through the first 17 games of the season. In short, it looked as if the Central Division was their oyster.
Between then and January 14, however, Nashville had trouble finding the win column, going just 8-14-5. Despite playing well most nights, they weren’t getting bounces and, therefore, were finding ways to lose games as opposed to finding ways to win them.
“I felt like we’d outplay teams pretty good but not get the results we were looking for,” Head Coach Peter Laviolette said.
The best example is their record when they outshot their opponent. Put simply, more often than not, when you fire more shots on goal than your opponent, you should come out on top. It has been the exact opposite for the Preds this season as they’re just 15-16-8 when outshooting their opponent including an incredible, eye-popping 1-6-0 when putting 40 or more shots on goal.
“We were doing some really good things on the ice but not getting results,” Laviolette continued. “The puck luck and the bounces weren’t going our way.”
“We’re doing things about 95 percent right,” defenseman Ryan Ellis told me back on December 3. “But, during that five percent we’re not doing things right, they’re scoring. It’s one of those things. It’s just not happening for us right now. When we turn that corner, we’ll get some better results.”
Consider that corner turned.
Since January 14, things have been looking up. Nashville is 14-4-5. While 33 out of a possible 46 points is really impressive, it’s the opponents they’ve collected those points from that stands out.
In the month of February, Nashville dominated the San Jose Sharks, throttled the Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers, went to overtime with the co-Atlantic leading Tampa Bay Lightning, the Dallas Stars and the Pacific-leading Los Angeles Kings, beat one of the NHL’s best road teams in the Boston Bruins, then mowed down the three teams above them in the Central, the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and, on March 1, the Stars.
“There are some special teams we play against and Chicago is one of them and St. Louis is another,” Filip Forsberg said. “I said before the season even started, [who wins those games is] going to be the determining factor on who makes the playoffs and who doesn’t.”
Nashville has gotten points in a franchise record 12 straight games.
“When you play a divisional game, there’s always a little more excitement and you want to make sure you win your division games,” Laviolette said. “But we’re at a point in the season right now where any points matter. The fact that we just stayed in the moment, went day-to-day and game-by-game and just collected the points and got back here is really important.”
During their struggles, a lot was made of Nashville’s need for secondary scoring. Last year, for example, Craig Smith had a solid season, posting 23 goals (one shy of his career high) and 44 points. From opening night through Valentine’s Day, the former Wisconsin Badger mustered just 18 points in 56 games. Not exactly what the Predators had in mind when they re-signed him to a five-year, $21.25 million deal in the off-season. In the past ten games, however, Smith is on fire. He’s skating like he’s been shot out of a cannon, he’s going into the hard areas and, as a result, he’s collected five goals and seven assists.
“My speed has been good and we’re creating turnovers,” Smith said about himself and his line. “I think we’re moving well. Work ethic has been our huge staple. Basically, were just hungry to make plays.”
“Craig’s playing really well,” Laviolette said. “His line is playing really well. He’s got good speed and good confidence right now. And Filip Forsberg is the same thing. That line is a really strong line for us. It takes all pieces for that line to get going but, when they do, they’re really hard to stop.”
As for Forsberg, he’s another example of a key player putting it all together again. The 2012 first round pick of the Capitals burst onto the scene in 2014-15 with his incredible 63-point campaign. In comparison, Forsberg struggled to find success through much of the season. He’s always been near the top (or at the top) of the team’s scoring lead but his production hasn’t been as dominant.
Until recently, that is.
Since February 6, the two-time World Junior silver medalist has rediscovered his scoring touch, impacting the scoresheet with 21 points in those 14 games. He also has a plus-10 rating over that span, has been named to Team Sweden for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey and has the fifth most points in the NHL since the All-Star Break.
“First of all, me, [Mike] Ribeiro and Smith just got back together,” Forsberg said. “We’re playing the way we should be playing, playing a lot more offense than we were at the start of the year and just trying to get back to how we played last year. That’s the biggest thing, I guess. Our line has been really good lately and that helps my production a lot.”
As the Ostervala, Sweden native mentioned, the final piece of that second line puzzle is the veteran playmaker Ribeiro. In the 15 games since February 4, he’s averaged over a point-per-game (16 points).
“All year we were trying to figure out who should play with who and, finally, we were put together,” Ribeiro said. “Smith can skate really well, he’s on the puck and pressing [the opponent] to make plays that they don’t want to make. And, a lot of times, Filip and I are able to read off that and then create turnovers.”
With the second line firing on all cylinders, the inevitable offense of the first line and the bottom two lines who can chip in occasionally, Nashville appears primed to not only make the playoffs but make some noise once they’re there.
How much noise? Stay tuned.
PHOTO CREDIT: Sarah Fuqua
SPECIAL THANKS to Kris Martel for his help locating a stat or two.