All of a sudden, the final week of the regular season has arrived - and the Nashville Predators have a chance at their second-consecutive Central Division crown.
They'll need to take care of business on their end and get some help from others as well, but it's a very real possibility the group will have another banner to hang next fall. Although the Preds clinched their fifth-straight postseason berth last week, there is still plenty to play for in these final three beginning on Tuesday night in Buffalo, the final road game of the season for the Predators.
And now, they'll have some additional assistance in attaining that divisional goal.
Predators forward Austin Watson returned to practice on Monday after skating in two games for the Milwaukee Admirals in the American Hockey League on a long-term injury loan. All Watson did was score a pair of goals in each of his outings as he helped the Ads with their own playoff push.
The rugged winger with a scoring touch will add that much more to the capabilities of Nashville's lineup in this final stretch, and he and his teammates couldn't be happier to be reunited once more.
"It was great to get into some game situations, jump into a playoff battle with those guys and just do what I could to contribute and find my game," Watson said following Monday's skate in Nashville. "With the amount of time off, to come back, you've got to find your game a little bit and see if everything still working out there. It was great to get down there, get into some practices and some game situations, and I'm still just taking it one day at a time."
Video: Watson, Sissons, Ellis talk final week
Approximately two weeks ago, Watson joined the organization for the first time since being returned to available status and entering the follow-up care phase of the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health (SABH) Program. At the time, both Watson and Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette emphasized they were taking things one day at a time.
However, Laviolette remarked Watson looked good on the ice during that first practice on March 20, and it wasn't long before the Preds determined he was good to go down to Milwaukee and get back into game action.
Not only did Watson get his legs back at the AHL level, his scoring prowess was difficult to ignore.
"Hopefully he can bring some of that magic up here," Preds forward Colton Sissons said of Watson's performance in Milwaukee. "He's played well down there and got his game back up to speed, and it's great to have him back around. We'll probably have a chance to get our line back together, so I'm really looking forward to it."
That line of Sissons, Watson and Nick Bonino was a trio during Monday's practice, and it's a group that saw tremendous success at points last season, particularly during Nashville's Round One series with the Colorado Avalanche.
It remains to be seen if Watson will return to the lineup as early as Tuesday night against the Sabres, but it shouldn't be long before he does to give the Predators about as full of a complement of players, they've seen all season.
"Just to be around the room, to be back with my teammates and be pushing toward the end of the year and toward the playoffs, it's awesome," Watson said. "If and when I get the chance, I just want to be able to do what I can out there, play my game and contribute."
"It's great for our team," Preds Associate Captain Ryan Ellis said of Watson's return. "He's got an important role, it's a rough role to play. Last year in the playoffs, he was probably our best player… Words can't even describe what he means to us. He blocks shots, stands in guys' lanes that nobody wants to and he's willing to do that… The heavier games get in the playoffs guys like that are the ones that battle through."
Video: Coach Laviolette talks Watson's return
Watson is just one piece of a club that hopes to find some additional points in the standings, and understandably so. Entering Monday night's action, the Predators find themselves tied for first in the division, but also just two points ahead of third-place St. Louis.
And while they may have clinched already, there is still plenty of work to be done in a week that will determine home-ice advantage, a division champion and so much more.
"Everything is up for grabs," Laviolette said. "There's three games left, but inside of those three games, there's a lot of movement that could happen. It's really important the way we approach this with the point of winning our games, and it starts with the first one in Buffalo."