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Is Preds New Identity Leading to Success?

Nashville is 7-1-1 in Last Nine and 6-1-1 in Their Last Eight One-Goal Games

by John Glennon @glennonsports / jg1sport@aol.com

When the Nashville Predators return to the ice on Tuesday to play the defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins, they'll do so as one of the NHL's hottest teams.

The Preds posted a 7-1-1 mark in their last nine games leading up to the NHL All-Star break, notching at least a point in five-straight contests before the League's weekend breather.

So just how have the Preds been able to shake off the inconsistencies that nagged them in earlier months?

In at least some ways, they've forged a new identity since the start of the season.

We'll start with the most obvious example, the roster itself:

On Opening Night against Chicago, the Predators' roster featured the likes of defenseman Matt Carle (now retired), along with forwards Kevin Fiala (now in Milwaukee), Cody Bass (now in Milwaukee), Miikka Salomaki (Injured Reserve) and goalie Marek Mazanec (now in Milwaukee).

Now take a look at the Preds' roster for their win last Thursday against Columbus.

Among the seven new names - almost a third of the roster - were forwards Austin Watson, Cody McLeod, Harry Zolnierczyk and Derek Grant; defensemen Matt Irwin and Brad Hunt; and goalie Juuse Saros.

It's not just simply changing the names on the lockers, of course, that's made the difference.

It's been the top-four minutes played by Irwin (third-most hits on the team), the stellar net-minding of Saros (.941 save percentage in 10 games) and the necessary nastiness supplied by the likes of Watson, McLeod, Zolnierczyk and Grant on the team's third and fourth lines.

"They're the kind of guys that go out and work hard every night - they make things happen on the ice," Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis said of the grinders. "The energy gets raised when they're out there. They've done a phenomenal job. I think it started with a big goal they scored in Colorado for us, and it's just taken off from there in a good way."

The Preds' new identity also includes an increased emphasis on defense.

All the outside attention at the start of the year was focused on the Preds' offense, a natural reaction given that Nashville was adding the skilled Subban to a high-powered bunch that included Roman Josi, James Neal, Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen.

But there were times the Preds could have been more attentive to defensive detail. In one stretch earlier this season, Nashville surrendered at least three goals nine-straight times, going 3-5-1.

"I think at the start of the year we kind of believed our own hype too much - obviously there were high expectations and all of that," Ellis said. "But lately we've been getting down to basics and simplifying our game.

"We know what kind of skill and talent level we have in here. But when you're playing teams like L.A., Minnesota and Winnipeg almost every night, it turns into more of a grinding, contact game. We've figured that out of late and it's starting to pay off."

Sure enough, the Predators have allowed two or fewer goals in nine of their last 13 games.

Part of that is due to great goaltending (Rinne has a .938 save percentage in January, Saros a .923 percentage), but part is due to better decision-making in front of the two netminders, whether that's in the offensive or defensive zone.

"We still want to be a high-tempo, high-skill, fast team, but at times, you've just got to be smart with your decisions and your actions," Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. "If you've been on the ice for 45 seconds, don't try that extra move because then it's a turnover and you get stuck out there. Maybe instead just chip the puck in for a change and get fresh legs out there. Live to fight another day."

The return of injured players can't be ignored either.

Video: NSH@MIN: Neal snipes a top-shelf beauty

Though Josi is still on Injured Reserve, the Preds did welcome back Subban (missed 16 games), Neal (missed five games), and Colin Wilson (missed eight games) at various dates in January.

Add all the factors together - the personnel turnover, the increased physicality, the improved defense and the gradually improved health - and you get a team that's both very different and very much improved from the start of the season.

One reliable measuring stick is how the Preds have fared in close games: They're now 6-1-1 in their last eight games decided by one goal, as opposed to the 2-3-6 mark they recorded in their first 11 one-goal games.

"Consistency is a hard thing," Preds Captain Mike Fisher said. "It's been tough to find, but I think now we've kind of established our team. We're starting to play with the confidence we were looking for earlier in the year."

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