Sometimes you look at the schedule and you see some teams have it worse than others. For example, last weekend the Nashville Predators had to play arguably two of the top five or six teams in the NHL, the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks, on the road on back-to-back days. That's a pretty tough thing to do, but you have to give Nashville a ton of credit, coming out of the two games with three points and pushing the Ducks to a shootout. Even in the Predators' 7-6 overtime win against the Kings on Saturday, in which they blew a three-goal lead late, you have to be amazed that the offense performed the way it did. After all, scoring seven goals on the Kings is nothing to sniff at.
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What amazed me most about that game against the Kings is the Predators showed they can win those crazy games that happen once in a while. The Predators can't give up six goals every night and win, no team can, but it used to be that if you scored four goals on Nashville, you had the game won. If you scored three, you probably had it won. Under Peter Laviolette that's no longer the case. Players like Mike Riberio and James Neal have given that team an offensive edge didn't have before, and unlike the Barry Trotz era when the team was completely dedicated to defense, the offense takes chances now. The forwards cheat a little bit. Every great offensive player cheats a little bit, for example leaving the zone a hair early when they think the puck is going to come loose. If the cheats aren't outrageous, you can get away with it and create offense, and Nashville is doing that.
In addition to that offense though, the Predators have kept the solid defensive foundation and the great goaltending we know them for. The result is a team with a very different style of play, but one that's also in first place in the Central Division. That's very impressive for this time of year, and with the way the Predators performed last weekend, they sent a message that they're going to be in the mix all season long.
HAB-ING IT ALL
It's hard to find a team playing quite as well as the Montreal Canadiens right now. Carey Price has been awesome in net, P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov have been very solid on defense, and the biggest difference in my mind is that the secondary offensive scoring has really come alive. Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher each started very slowly, but now those two are on fire. Montreal is a team that gets goals from all four lines and all four lines can check. Price has been an anchor in net, and the result has been nine wins in the past 10 games and the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
The other thing worth noting is that in addition to defeating bad teams, the Canadiens have also defeated some very good teams in the process. They aren't winning crazy 7-6 games. They're shutting other teams down on the back end. Price has shown that if he's not the best goalie in the East, he's certainly in the conversation.
Montreal won't stay quite this hot for the rest of the season, but barring injuries to key players, I can't see how they could fall too far off the pace. Injuries are the key. You look at the Boston Bruins who have been hurt a lot, and they haven't gotten it together yet. The Pittsburgh Penguins have been beaten up, and they're hanging tough, but it's clearly starting to wear on them. The Canadiens have been relatively healthy, and as a result they've just gotten better and better as the season has gone on.
BLAD TO THE BONE
It's tough to be an 18-year-old playing in the NHL. It really is. That's what makes it so impressive that Aaron Ekblad has been so good for the Florida Panthers. I don't think he'll end up winning the Calder Trophy this spring as Rookie of the Year, because that usually goes to a forward, but he's been fantastic. Ekblad was the perfect pick for the Panthers when they got the No. 1 selection at the 2014 NHL Draft. They had been using a lot of top picks on forwards, much like the Edmonton Oilers have done. Those are all good players who can score, but you still have to keep the puck out of the net. Now that Ekblad is on this team and a few other young defensemen are maturing, you're starting to see how good that defense can be.
Defense - FLA
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 17 | PTS: 22
SOG: 76 | +/-: 9
It's very hard for a young kid to play in this League strength-wise. Ekblad is a big guy, but he's certainly not as strong as he will be in four years when he's 22. You'll see him get stronger and stronger and every time you play against great players you get better. He'll be facing top talent in practice and in games. He'll learn Sidney Crosby
's habits. He'll learn Evgeni Malkin
's habits. He'll learn what Max Pacioretty
does or Steven Stamkos
does. Each time he plays them he'll put it in his memory and learn it like the great ones do. He looks like that kind of sponge.
If a guy can play like he does at 18, when he's 20 or 21, the sky's the limit. Look at Victor Hedman on the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was highly-touted when he was drafted at No. 2 in 2009, he showed glimpses and flashes, and now he's put it together and matured. Hedman was probably the best defenseman in the League this season until he got hurt. Ekblad looks like that kind of player. He's going to get better and better, and if he stays healthy and keeps maturing, he'll be a Norris Trophy contender in the future. There are a lot of great young defensemen in the NHL, like Drew Doughty or Duncan Keith. I think in a year or two, Ekblad will move into that group.