NASHVILLE -- When the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game was held in Nashville on Jan. 31, there was an air of uncertainty around the hometown Predators.
They had just won all four games in a row on a trip through Western Canada, but had also started January with a 2-5-1 record. A trade with Columbus for Ryan Johansen on Jan. 6 didn't appear to wake them up, and a trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs was not a certainty.
But the Predators have turned things around with an 11-4-5 run since the All-Star break, and with 12 games remaining in the regular season have an eight-point lead over the Minnesota Wild for the first wild card spot into the playoffs from the Western Conference.
The players say the success began when they made a commitment to play better team defense.
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"I think that comes with just playing smart hockey," forward Mike Fisher said. "I think in certain points of the season when things aren't going well, you press. You try and force things, and then you get caught on the wrong side of pucks.
"We wanted to play hard and play good defensively. Our [defensemen] do a good job but our forwards, we knew we needed to do a better job and I think we've done that. [Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne] has been outstanding. When your goalie is making those big saves, he can give the group in front a lot more confidence too."
The Predators' run included a franchise-record streak of 14 games with at least one point (9-0-5), and they've found playing better team defense has led to more offensive opportunities.
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The forwards -- especially Filip Forsberg, who had 12 goals in February, including two hat tricks -- have started to score more consistently. Nashville also has been able to force turnovers in the neutral zone, leading to odd-man rushes and strong scoring chances the other way.
"Just playing better defense as a team, that's what made us successful after that stretch that we had," defenseman Roman Josi said. "From all of that defense, offense comes naturally from that and I think we've been scoring more goals too, because we're playing well defensively and creating chances and capitalizing on them."
The Predators had the League's best record (41-13-7) through the first 61 games last season, but finished the regular season 6-12-3 and were knocked out by the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference First Round. This season, the Predators started slow and appear to be finishing strong, but they know nothing is guaranteed.
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"I said it last year, at the end of the season there's no exact road map to success," coach Peter Laviolette said. "Whether you're playing well or you're not playing well, if you're fortunate enough to be one of the 16 teams that plays for the Stanley Cup, you have to do the right things every day in order to move on in a round and move on in multiple rounds and ultimately hold the Stanley Cup.
"The regular season is the vehicle you use to get to the playoffs. The road always twists and turns when you're in that vehicle and plays out differently. I don't know if there's a right or a wrong way to get there. Right now we're getting some points and we're doing some good things."
The Predators, who have won two playoff series in their existence, have built a small cushion in the wild-card race, but won't take anything for granted, hoping to continue to play the style of hockey that has made them successful during the past two months.
"We've got to keep this thing going and make sure we're feeling good going into the playoffs," Fisher said. "We've still got a lot of work to do to nail down a playoff spot, so we've got to fight for everything and keep going."