The Nashville Predators play in the toughest division in hockey, but that hasn’t stopped them from pushing up the standings in the early going.
And when you think about it, they have all the makings of a contender: a solid group of forwards headlined by sniper James Neal and young phenom Filip Forsberg, a deep and well-rounded group of defensemen led by Shea Weber and Roman Josi, and a world-class goaltender named Pekka Rinne backing them up.
Head coach Peter Laviolette, in his second season behind the Nashville bench, feels that this edition of the Predators might have the best chance yet – and he may well be right. It’s tough to find holes in the roster, and when they’re playing within the system and doing the little things well, this is a tough team to beat.
The Predators are 3-0-1 in their last four games and haven’t played since beating the Anaheim Ducks on Monday night at Bridgestone Arena. Of those four games, the lone defeat was a shootout loss to the Maple Leafs but they mixed in a 7-0 trouncing of the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday night, so this is a team playing with plenty of offensive confidence right now.
Offense in Nashville comes in waves from the back end, and Weber isn’t the only one chipping in these days. Josi is a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate (13 points in 17 games), playing a strong two-way game while also logging big minutes on the power play. His 13 points are two off the team lead held by Neal.
But, as most of the NHL’s top teams can attest, they’ll only go as far as their goaltender takes them, and Rinne’s been awfully good in the early going. He’s coming off a sterling 38-save performance against the Ducks on Monday, upping his 2015-16 account to 10-2-3 with a 2.11 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.
The last time the Blue Jackets and Predators did battle was way back on Dec. 22, 2014 – 11 months ago – on a Monday night at Nationwide Arena. It was anything but a night to remember for the home team, struggling out of the gate and stumbling along to a messy 5-1 loss on home ice. Nashville was the better team throughout the game, and the scoreboard was an accurate depiction of what took place on the ice.
If there was a bright spot on an otherwise disappointing performance, it was (at long last) the first NHL goal for Alexander Wennberg in the third period. On the power play, Wennberg drifted into the low left circle and ripped a shot high over Rinne with 4:22 remaining in regulation.
Rinne made 31 saves in the victory and Craig Smith scored twice for Nashville.
Filip Forsberg broke out in a big way last year for Nashville, a season after being acquired by the Predators in a deadline-day deal that sent Martin Erat to the Washington Capitals. That trade, pulled off by veteran GM David Poile (the only GM in Predators history), turned out to be one of the bigger heists in recent memory, as Forsberg is an absolute mainstay and a game-breaker for Laviolette.
Wherever Forsberg has played in the lineup, he’s found a way to be effective and that’s a really good sign for Nashville. Expect him to play on the Predators’ second line alongside veteran center Mike Ribeiro when the puck drops at Nationwide Arena.