Following a dismal, shortened season due to the lockout, the Predators had a very up and down 2013-14 season. The biggest down of last season was easily goaltender Pekka Rinne missing the majority of it due to injury. Nashville only missed the playoffs by three points and was in control of their destiny as the season neared its end, but they were not able to win the games they needed to in order to secure a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Multiple changes happened following the 2013-14 season. Not only did Peter Laviolette come in to replace Barry Trotz, but General Manager David Poile traded Patric Hornqvist for James Neal and signed Mike Ribeiro to a one-year contract. The 2014-15 season started with some new faces, a healthy Rinne and a young forward in Filip Forsberg looking to make a difference. The new-look Predators quickly jumped to the top of the Central Division and the league and have stayed at or near the top the entire season.
A major contributor to Nashville’s success this season has been the play of Rinne. With 41 wins, Rinne is currently tied for the league lead in the category. As a team, the Predators have 47 wins this season, making Rinne responsible for 87.23% of the team’s wins with only four games left in the regular season.
“I think having a healthy Pekka is one of the big changes this year,” said defenseman Ryan Ellis, who is only two games shy of 200 for his NHL career. “He’s one of the best goalies in the league and he’s proven it this year. Hutton did a great job last year, but having both of them as a tandem now has been great for our team. The style of play now is more up tempo and more in your face. Not so much back on your heels and it creates more offensive zone time. We’ve got a lot of defenseman that like that.
We also added a couple of big time forwards that can also play in the offensive zone. There are a lot of factors that add in to it, but we have a great locker room. We had a good one last year, but an even better one this year. Tighter knit. Overall, a lot of positives coming in to this year.”
As if it was any surprise, Roman Josi echoed Ellis’ thoughts on Rinne.
“I think Pekka has been a big part,” said Josi on the team’s success this season. “He was hurt almost all year last year. It’s been great to have him back and healthy. He’s played so well all year. He’s been one of the best goalies in the league this year, so he’s a big reason for that. We’ve had a couple of additions in players. Filip has had a great year. Neal came in and played great. Those guys are definitely huge to the team.”
Both Josi and Ellis have also been factors for the team along with the play of the entire blueline. In 78 games so far this season, there have only been eight games where a defenseman has not tallied a point. In those eight games, the Predators are 2-5-1. Out of those five regulation losses, four of them were shutouts. Having multiple defensemen that can contribute offensively has been a tremendous part of the success of the Predators this season.
“I think as a defenseman knowing if you’re against, say, a second line, you have to watch out for this guy or that guy, but when you have a pair or even just one defenseman that’s always up in the rush, it might be a four on two instead of a three on two,” said Ellis. “Then, in zone, just cycling low, they’re going to bring it high. It creates a lot of chaos in the other end. I think adding defense to the offense creates that chaos. It makes it difficult for teams and defenses to pick up what’s going on. It’s a challenge when other teams do it to us, so I can only imagine what it’s like when we do it to other teams.”
Overall consistency in scoring has also increased this season. Last year, Nashville ranked 25th in goals for/against ratio when five-on-five at 0.88. Fast forward to this season and the team is currently ranked second in the league with 1.30. Along with that, the Predators have been much more consistent defensively. This season, the team ranks fourth in goals against per game at 2.40 whereas last season, Nashville ranked 23rd.
With the additions of new forwards and the defense expected to contribute, the Predators also increased total shot production on net. The team only averaged 29 shots per game in the 2013-14 season, which was only good enough for 22nd in the league. The Predators currently rank third in the league with 31.8 shots per game. This, coupled with the ability to score while five-on-five, has helped Nashville avoid major slumps throughout the season, aside from the one blip in late February and early March.
“We’ve been pretty healthy and haven’t had bad slumps,” said Pekka Rinne. “We haven’t had big bumps in the road…except the last part of the season, which was tough. That was our only time when we faced some adversity. Before that, I don’t think we lost two regular time losses in a row. That’s the key is that we’ve been so consistent and played with a lot of energy.
We changed a little bit of the system we play. New coaching staff and new players, everything plays a role. Just overall, the way we’ve been playing is good hockey. That’s been the biggest difference. Last year, I felt that we were inconsistent. We were good and then not good. We still had a chance to make the playoffs, but just didn’t have it. The differences are so small. I don’t really like comparing different season and different teams. Last year was a totally different team and situation. I’m happy where we’re at today and looking forward to the playoffs.”
Only four games remain in the regular season for the Predators. Three of those games are against teams not currently in the playoffs; two against Dallas and one against Colorado. They control their own destiny in winning the first Central Division title in franchise history. Not only is the division title within reach, but the Presidents’ Trophy could still be won. Either way, David Poile’s goal of making the playoffs has been achieved. What happens next is completely up to the team that takes the ice.
With the playoffs less than two weeks away, the Predators were asked about best and worst playoff beards on the team. Excluded from the “best” was captain Shea Weber, because everyone knows he has the best beard on the team.
Best beard – “Besides Shea? It’s definitely not me. I think Carter has a pretty good beard. Shea’s is top notch.”
Worst beard – “Jones. It’s terrible. It’s gross.” (said as Seth Jones sat next to him)
Jones to Josi: “At least I’m growing mine.”
Best beard – “Probably Fisher, Ribeiro will be pretty good, I think. Who else? Myself. I don’t know, I’d say that’s top three though. Ekholm will probably have a pretty good one too.”
Worst beard – “Probably Josi’s or Bartley’s. I’m going to say Filip will have the worst one, though.”
Best beard – “Cullen is going to have a good beard. I think he shaves once a day, so he’ll have a solid beard in no time.”
Worst beard – “Bourque. He’s got a mustache and that’s about it.”
Best beard – “I have to admit, I’m pretty excited to see Hutton’s beard. Looks like he has a thick beard. I’m excited to see all the young guys like Forsberg and Calle. I think Jarnkrok is actually going to get a pretty good one.
Worst beard – “Probably me. I can’t grow a beard, so it’s going to be funny looking.”
Photo credit: Christina McCullough