Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena, the Nashville Predators played, "in recent times, one of the strongest games I can recall" according to Head Coach Peter Laviolette.
Nashville overwhelmed the Colorado Avalanche
5-2, outshooting them 41-20 (at one point the shots were 35-9 as the Predators pulled away early in the 3rd period).
The Avs, fighting to keep their slim playoff chances alive, had no answers.
It was a welcome sight, as the Predators continue through an extremely challenging stage of the NHL season. February always brings intensity, because as Laviolette put it on Tuesday: "Everybody is desperate.”
Teams are either fighting to get up into a playoff spot, stay in the race or gain home-ice advantage. Very few clubs think they are "out of it", especially in the Western Conference.
Not only are the Predators playing hungry teams, but they are in an extremely demanding portion of their schedule for another reason - volume of games. Consider:
1. Since the All-Star Break, Nashville is now 16 games into a stretch of 23 games in 42 days (ending March 9 in Arizona)
2. During this entire period, the team has only had one, two-day stretch without a game (February 15-16)
3. The Predators played the first four games without Pekka Rinne available due to his knee injury.
4. Key defenseman Ryan Ellis has missed the entire span of games to this point with injury.
5. Two other important contributors, Colin Wilson and Mattias Ekholm, also missed time with injury.
The Predators have been in a tight race with Chicago, Anaheim and St. Louis to remain in the top spot in the Western Conference. When the volume of games is high, rest is at a premium. It's hard to find practice time as a result. The challenge for Laviolette is to keep the team sharp while making sure the team is not overtaxed.
Tempo is a big part of the Predators game. They utilize an aggressive forecheck, with defensemen jumping into the play, pinching down the boards to keep pucks in the offensive zone. Forwards must be able to balance the ice when the defensemen press. When it's working properly, the Predators usually gain the possession edge they are looking for with shots and shot-attempts. If the team is a step slow (mentally or physically), the opposition can counter effectively.
No team can play lights out for 82 games. There will be stretches where teams struggle and must endure. For a two-week stretch during this heavy schedule (Feb 7-21), Nashville was outshot in seven of eight games. They were not as dominant as they had been. Yet their record in that span was 6-1-1. They have found ways to win, even when they have "struggled.” It's a testament to the mix of talent, teamwork and belief system.
They have gotten results, even through adversity.
Overall, with seven games remaining in this challenging stretch where they are playing, on average, slightly more than every other night, Nashville is 11-3-2 and have widened their margin in the Central Division (as of Feb. 25: St. Louis is nine points behind, Chicago is 12 back). With a quarter of the season remaining, the Predators have put themselves in prime position for their first ever division title.
But it's not over yet. Lots can still happen.
Premier teams like the Blues and Blackhawks are capable of stringing together the type of hot streaks many teams cannot. So the Predators still have work to do. But once this heavy patch of 23 in 42 ends on March 9, Nashville will have 14 games in 33 days to end the regular season. In theory, more rest and practices will allow them to have an easier time staying sharp and playing at the tempo that makes them most effective.
It was nice to see it on full display last night.