The calendar may only say March, but it's already starting to feel like April on the ice.
Intensity and significance are ramping up across the NHL with the final full month of the regular season underway, and with 17 games to go for the Nashville Predators - who start a three-game California trip on Tuesday in Anaheim - every shift, every save and every goal is magnified that much more.
The players can feel it, and they know the tension will only rise with each passing day from here on out, especially with the amount of parity throughout the League standings.
"With the points being so huge right now, just to get into the playoffs, I think every team is kind of playing with that desperation every single night," forward Austin Watson said after Monday's practice at Centennial Sportsplex. "We know every opponent that you face has that same mentality, and it leads to good hockey."
The Preds have seen their share of quality outings lately, but they've also experienced heartbreak for two consecutive games, falling to Montreal last Thursday with less than 10 seconds left in regulation, followed by a late loss to Chicago on Saturday.
"I don't think we can sweep everything under the carpet," Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. "There's always things that we can do better out there; but if you're asking me if I like the effort of our guys in Montreal and the way we played at home against Chicago, I do, but that being said, we lost a couple games. There are things we can do better."
Before dropping two in a row, the Preds rattled off wins in four straight and points in six straight, leading to a move into third place in the Central Division. In fact, since Jan. 1, Nashville is tied for fifth in the NHL for the most points collected with 35.
Video: NSH@MTL: Ellis opens scoring with power-play blast
"The way we're playing right now, the energy and the effort that we're coming out with every night is always good," Watson said. "There's little technical things to clean up, some system stuff, but overall, the way our team's playing right now, you have guys playing with confidence. We're playing as a group every night, and if we keep doing that, most of the time we're going to like the result."
As the Preds now prepare for their longest remaining road trip of the season, they do so with a confidence that wasn't there when they made the trek to California last. A western swing at the end of October earlier in the season saw the Preds go 0-3-0 in the Golden State, but what a difference a few months could make.
"Through these last 20 games, everything is elevated," Captain Mike Fisher said. "Everything is so important, there's so many teams fighting and the parity in the League is so good that I think it elevates play of all the teams, which makes it so important for us… I just love this group, I love the way we've competed and played and gotten better this year, and I'm really confident in our group as a whole."
A constant of the season has been the feeling in the locker room - never too low or too high, always with a positive mindset, ready to face whatever challenge lies ahead. It won't be long before the calendar flips once more.
"It's postseason hockey right now, there's no question," forward Vernon Fiddler said. "These points mean so much and every opponent you can beat this time of year is huge. That's what we're looking to do on this trip."
Ellis & Parenteau Participate:
The Predators fan base collectively held their breath on Thursday night when defenseman Ryan Ellis went down on what seemed like an innocent play, but then couldn't get back up. Ellis was held out of Saturday's game against Chicago with a lower-body injury, but Monday brought better news.
The blueliner hit the ice for practice with the rest of his teammates and participated fully, certainly a positive sign considering the visual just a few days prior.
"It was just an unfortunate way to fall and ended up getting hurt there," Ellis said of the play on Thursday. "Things happen throughout a game and some look like innocent plays and some are pretty obvious when they happen, but it was just an innocent play and didn't work out the right way."
Ellis said he will travel with the team to California, but wasn't certain of his status for Tuesday night in Anaheim.
Forward P.A. Parenteau, who was acquired prior to last Wednesday's trade deadline, also practiced with his new team for the first time on Monday. It's not certain when Parenteau, who has an upper-body injury, will be fit to play, according to Laviolette. But whenever that time does come, the bench boss is looking forward to plugging his new piece into the lineup.
"He's a skilled player and he makes plays," Laviolette said. "He's put up points, he's a veteran player, he's been around, he skates well, can play different positions, can play up and down the lineup, so there's a lot he brings to the table."