PREDATORS AT THE MIDPOINT
By Jim Diamond
Nashville on pace for third-best record in franchise history
Thursday night’s New Year’s Eve victory in Columbus marked the halfway point in the Predators 2009-2010 schedule. After a thrilling come-from-behind overtime game that night, and a 3-1 victory over Anaheim on Saturday in the first game of the second-half of the campaign, the club has reason to be proud of their accomplishments thus far. Their 25-14-3 record has the Predators sitting in second place in the Central Division and sixth in the Western Conference.
Nashville’s numbers so far point to a marked improvement over the same time frame a year ago. After 42 games last season, the team had a 19-20-3 record and had scored just 104 goals while allowing opponents 121. This season, including shootout winners, the team has scored 121 and allowed 119.
The Predators finished last season with a 40-34-8 record. The 88 points earned in 2008-09 were three behind the Anaheim Ducks, whose 91 points were the eighth and final Western Conference playoff qualifier.
Head coach Barry Trotz is cautiously optimistic about the team after game 42 this season.
“Considering the start that we had, I would say decent first half, even good first half, but it doesn’t mean anything if you do not have a good second half,” Trotz said. “We’re just trying to live in the moment right now.”
The start Trotz was referring to was enough to have anyone thinking that 2009-10 was going to be a long season on Broadway. After winning their first two games, the team lost its next six, earning just one point in the standings in those six games. A wild 6-5 victory in Ottawa Oct. 22 stopped the skid, but what really turned the season around was a set of back-to-back games a week later.
When the team traveled to Minnesota on Oct. 28, they were facing the possibility of sinking to 15th place in the Western Conference with a loss. The Predators not only took down the Wild that night, but returned to Nashville and defeated the Chicago Blackhawks the following night, 2-0.
A seven-game winning streak from Nov. 12-25 was a large confidence booster for the team. Seven consecutive victories are impressive no matter whom the opponents are, but of those seven opponents, six were playoff teams last season, and the other came against the surprising Colorado Avalanche who has been atop the Northwest Division for most of this season.
Trotz says the team divided the schedule into three segments, and the Columbus game concluded the first segment.
“This is just period one, it was a 41 game period,” he said. “The next (20 games) from now until the Olympic break is period two. And then when we come back from the Olympic break, it will be period three. We are hoping the second season can be as good as the first.”
Goaltender Pekka Rinne
likes what he has seen from the team at the season’s midpoint.
“The race is so tight; it is just a few points here and there that can change it a lot,” he said. “If you lose a couple of games, right away you are back battling for eighth spot.”
The Finn knows that as the season heads into the home stretch the games get more intense and points harder to come by.
“Everybody starts to play with more desperation and a little bit more purpose,” Rinne said. “Every team needs those points; nothing is going to be free. We are well prepared, and everybody is really excited for the rest of the year.”
Coming off an impressive rookie season in 2008-09 that saw him finish fourth in the voting for the Calder Trophy given to the league’s top rookie, Rinne has a 16-7-2 record this season. On Saturday, he posted one of his best outing of the season, stopping 25-of-26 shots in the win.
Up front, the Predators have benefited from balanced scoring from their forwards. Martin Erat
leads the team in goals scored with 14 thanks in large part to his 10 December goals, which tied a team record for goals in a month. The Czech Olympian is currently on the sidelines due to injury, but could return as soon as this weekend. Patric Hornqvist
(13), captain Jason Arnott (12) and David Legwand
also have double-digit goal totals. The biggest surprise among the forwards has to be the offensive output of center Marcel Goc. Signed as a free agent in the off season, the former San Jose Shark has potted eight goals in 40 games played this season. The eight goals ties the Calw, Germany native’s career-high set in his rookie season in 2005-06 with San Jose.
Legwand thinks the key to the Predators early-season success is the team sticking basic and fundamental hockey.
“We just want to keep playing the way we have been,” he said. “When we play simple hockey, it seems to work out best for us. When we get too fancy, it doesn’t work out too well for us. We want to end the year on a good note.”
Trotz relies on Legwand’s strong defensive play and deploys Nashville’s first-ever draft pick against opponent’s top lines nearly every game. Legwand has chipped in offensively as well with 10 goals and 16 assists in playing all 42 games to date. Three of Legwand’s goals have been game winners, including the New Year’s Eve overtime winner in Columbus. Legwand also scored the shootout-winning goal Nov. 21, also against the Blue Jackets.
Joel Ward, who assisted on Legwand’s overtime winner in Columbus, thinks that the Dec. 31 win was indicative of how the team has performed all season.
“I guess you could say it kind of resembled our team overall, just kind of staying with it as best we can,” he said. “We battle and support each one another. We’ve just been believing in ourselves and showing a lot of confidence.”
Nashville’s defense is anchored by 2003 draftees Ryan Suter
and Shea Weber
. The team’s top defensive duo log big minutes on a nightly basis, with Suter leading the team in time on ice per game at just over 24 minutes and Weber close behind at just over 23. Free agent Francis Bouillon
was added to the team just prior to the season’s start, and his veteran presence has been noticeable in his time on the ice with some of the younger blueliners like Kevin Klein
, Cody Franson, and Alexander Sulzer.
Klein’s role has increased dramatically from last season. His ice time has gone from 12:39 per game last season to 20:06 this season, the largest such increase in the NHL.
Heading into 2010, the Predators realize that all is not perfect with the team, but the fact that they are winning games despite battling some injuries and struggling special teams gives the team hope that games 42-82 and hopefully beyond can be even better.
“When you do well, you expect to keep doing well,” Rinne said. “We can’t let down.”