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Slow Start Doesn't Mean Low Finish for Preds

There Are Plenty of Reasons to Believe Nashville's Tough Start Won't Last Long

by John Glennon @glennonsports / NashvillePredators.com

In the early stages of the 2015-16 NHL season, the Montreal Canadiens roared out of the gates with nine-straight victories, prompting one of the team's hometown newspapers to reference the Canadiens as a "winning juggernaut."

Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins couldn't seem to find a way to win, unexpectedly losing their first three games and posting a record of just 15-14-3 in mid-December.

So what did it all mean by season's end? Very little.

The Canadiens were so bad from December on that they didn't even make the playoffs. The Penguins, meanwhile, were so good that they wound up winning the Stanley Cup.

All of which is to say the Predators' slower-than-expected start - the team was 4-5-3 heading into Thursday's game against St. Louis - doesn't mean the sky is falling.

Would the Predators like to be in a better position, given the excitement surrounding the team following the acquisition of defenseman P.K. Subban? Absolutely.

But very few teams roll through an 82-game regular season without hitting rough patches. It's just a matter of when they occur, how long they last and how well teams emerge from them.

"I can guarantee you the team that wins the Stanley Cup this year will have gone 3-5-2 in 10 games - we just caught ours right off the bat," Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. "It could be us, it could be somebody else. [But] no team, rarely, goes through a year where they play every 10-game segment above .500."

What might be some of the reasons the Predators - who'd claimed at least a point in four-straight games going into Thursday - are still seeking to find a greater level of consistency?

One is that it may take some time for the Preds to adjust to different pairings on defense.

Whereas the three top defensive duos last year featured Roman Josi-Shea Weber, Mattias Ekholm-Ryan Ellis and Anthony Bitetto-Barret Jackman, the top-three pairings at present are Josi-Ellis, Ekholm-Subban and Matt Irwin-Yannick Weber

All teams, including the Preds, have to defend their own zone and possess the puck there before talented forwards can take the play to an opponent.

A second reason is that the Predators are in the process of molding new leaders and adjusting to a new team chemistry.

The Preds got younger and faster during the offseason when they traded Shea Weber, and when they bid farewell to players like Paul Gaustad, Eric Nystrom and Jackman. But they are also learning to replace the leadership skills and experience of those veteran players.

"It's funny, I always felt like I was one of the youngest guys on the team and all of a sudden I'm a 27-year-old," Preds forward Colin Wilson said. "All of a sudden, guys start stepping up and realizing we need that leadership with how young our team is. But now I think guys have taken that role, and I think they're starting to hold each other accountable."

Added Laviolette: "Even leaving leadership out of it for a second, you have real young players that [in the past] might have had a layer of insulation. But players [who were] four or five years older than those players are gone now. We're looking at those younger players. So I do think there's new roles, new expectations, new accountability just inside our locker room."

The good news for Nashville fans is that a number of Predators teams in past years have turned so-so starts into superb seasons.

In 2009-10, for instance, a Preds team that began the year 5-6-1 caught fire in mid-November, winning seven-straight games and finishing the regular season with 47 victories - tied for the second-most in franchise history.

Things were similar in 2010-11, when the Predators were 5-5-3 in the early going, but produced a stretch of 8-0-1 hockey starting in late November. That eventually led to 44 regular-season wins and the franchise's first trip to the second round of the playoffs.

So give this talented team a little time to create chemistry, determine its identity and increase its consistency.

The end of the season, after all, isn't always a reflection of the beginning.

"We know we're a great hockey team and that we've got a lot of talent," Preds Captain Mike Fisher said. "There are lots of teams going through the same thing. It's just about how you deal with it, how you become better as a team. We're confident in our abilities and the team that we are."

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