As the Predators embark on their first trip to the Western Conference Final, the narrative from the national media often centers on the unlikely run of this Second Wildcard team (also referred to as an eight seed).
In reality, the Preds have slowly blossomed into a team whose stats can match any elite squad's - since Jan. 10. Let's take a look back:
On the night of Jan. 8, Nashville played their 40th game of the season and lost in Chicago 5-2. It was a frustrating affair in which the Blackhawks scored three late third-period goals (two empty-netters) to break open a tight game. The Predators had lost many close games in this fashion to that point in the season - unlucky one night, not doing "the little things" on another. The formula wasn't quite right, but everyone on the team knew they were capable of more. "Inconsistent" was a word used to describe them more than perhaps any other.
After that loss, the Predators were 17-16-7 on the season (41 points). That ranked 22nd overall in the NHL and 10th in the Western Conference (ahead of only Winnipeg, Dallas, Arizona and Colorado).
Since then, everything has changed. First let's look at the numbers:
Overall Since Jan. 10
Final 42 Games of Regular Season: 24-13-5
First two Rounds of the Playoffs: 8-2
At Home Since Jan. 10
Regular Season Record: 14-4-3 and 3.42 (goals-for per game)
Playoffs Record: 5-0 and 3.00 (goals-for per game)
Total Record: 19-4-3
Impressive? Yes. Even more impressive was the strength of schedule, which ranked as the seventh toughest in the League (based on opponent's winning percentage) from the post-All-Star Break to the finish. During the ultra-compressed, 26 games in 50 day stretch to end the regular season, Nashville played only nine games against teams that ended up missing the playoffs. Of those nine, five were against the Islanders, Hurricanes and Jets - who all had excellent finishes to their seasons.
Now add in the playoff opponents. The Blackhawks were the top seed in the West, and the Blues had the best record in the NHL from February until the end of the regular season.
The above numbers, in the context of who they were playing, look even more stellar. So how did they do it?
You will often hear the term used by a coach or general manager: "We have to find the right seat on the bus for everybody." It means to make sure everyone on the team has a comfortable role. If everybody is in the right seat, it usually leads to success.
Around Jan. 10, this was still a work in progress for the Predators. But a couple of adjustments by David Poile and Peter Laviolette helped put the picture into focus.
The addition of veterans Cody McLeod, Vernon Fiddler and P.A. Parenteau via trade, plus the presence of Harry Zolnierczyk and Brad Hunt gave tremendous support to first-year Captain Mike Fisher and the existing leadership group. Not coincidentally, there was more accountability in the locker room.
There was more attention to detail, more life around the team - and the wins started coming. McLeod and Zolnierczyk in particular have a special knack for saying the right thing at the right time. Their positive attitude seems to rub off. McLeod joined the team Jan. 14 and instantly sparked them to a win in Colorado by scoring a goal against his former team. He had 100 hits and 11 fighting majors in 31 regular-season games. As for Zolnierczyk, I call it the "Z Factor." In the regular season and playoffs combined, the Predators are 22-8-1 with Zolnierczyk in the lineup.
Video: STL@NSH, Gm6: Jarnkrok wins race, scores on empty net
Maturity of Forwards:
In mid-January, the Predators made a decision to move Calle Jarnkrok from his role of "Swedish Army Knife" (utility man) to a permanent fixture at center. Still a young player who had already improved greatly each season, Jarnkrok took his game to the next level. From Jan. 19 on, Jarnkrok finished fourth on the team with 10 goals and 21 points. He instantly made the Predators a better defensive team with his two-way play, and his contributions in the face-off circle helped Nashville win 54.4 percent of draws as a team from Feb. 7 on (second best in the NHL).
The emergence of Jarnkrok down the middle had a ripple effect. Other young forwards now had better opportunities to play and contribute. Colton Sissons, Kevin Fiala, Pontus Aberg and Austin Watson all seemed to mature visibly in the second half of the season in their various roles. They have carried that over into the postseason.
Finally, the explosion of the JOFA line gave the Predators perhaps their most dangerous offensive combination in franchise history. Sometimes it's easy to forget that Ryan Johansen (24), Filip Forsberg (22), and Viktor Arvidsson (24) are all still as young as they are. Johansen's contributions seemed to grow not only toward his strengths (24 assists from Jan. 19 to the end), but also in his all-around game. Forsberg and Arvidsson combined for 43 goals from Jan. 10 to the finish.
Video: STL@NSH, Gm4: Ellis cleans up rebound for PPG
Top Four D:
The vision had been there from the outset, but for various reasons (namely injuries) it took a half season for it to take shape. Many prognosticators rightfully had Nashville as the top all-around defense corps in the NHL before the season, but with Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Roman Josi all spending significant time on the Injured Reserve, the numbers weren't there in early January. Only the rock solid Mattias Ekholm remained healthy for the entire season. However, once Subban and Josi returned and got up to speed, the offense exploded. A couple of numbers:
Nashville defensemen combined for 82 points from Feb. 7 to the end of the regular season (most in the NHL).
Roman Josi had 29 points in his last 32 games
P.K Subban had 21 points in his last 29 games
Ryan Ellis had 11 goals in his final 39 games
Next up is the Anaheim Ducks, another stout opponent who played tremendously well down the stretch. For the Predators, it will be another huge test. To get this far has been an accomplishment few outsiders predicted as the playoffs began. But the numbers since Jan. 10 suggest - to those paying close attention - we should not have been surprised.
*Special thanks to Preds/Fox Sports TN statistician Jacob Underwood for providing many of the numbers for this article