It's taken more than half the regular season, but it appears the Nashville Predators are finally looking like the team that many predicted would compete for a Central Division championship.
Inconsistency early in the year coupled with an injury to defenseman P.K. Subban around Christmas had kept the Predators stuck in neutral.
But after a 5-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 8 dropped Nashville to 1-2-1 in the New Year, the Predators have been on a tear, defeating Vancouver and Boston on both games of a quick two-game homestand before heading out on a nightmare five-game, nine-day stretch where the club had its share of travel issues.
The trip started with mechanical issues with the team's charter, which forced it to arrive in Denver much later than normal. After flying to Vancouver, the team had to wait on the plane because customs agents were nowhere to be found. In Edmonton, the team hotel lost power.
Despite all that, the Predators went 4-1-0 on the trip and have no climbed to third place in the Central Division behind Minnesota and Chicago.
"It just hasn't been the smoothest thing, a lot of things out of our control," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said Sunday after a 4-2 win at Xcel Energy Center. "Not necessarily the fault of anybody in particular, but things have just happened and our guys have just rolled with it and stayed focused and played some pretty good hockey along the way."
The win over the Wild was a gutty one. Playing for the third time in four nights at the tail end of a long trip, Nashville fell two goals behind in the first half of the first period before beginning a slow climb back.
James Neal got Nashville on the board in the second before back-to-back goals by Filip Forsberg put the Predators in front for good. Ryan Johansen added a quirky empty-netter with just over a minute to play.
"Falling down two-nothing to the top team in our division, fighting back on them in their home building, I think they're 17-2-1 in their last 20 games or something like that, so they're playing terrific hockey and they showed that in the first period," Laviolette said. "But it was a good road trip where the guys really dug in, made some noise, made up some ground."
If the Predators are able to continue their ascent in the Central Division -- there is still 12 points between Nashville and the top two teams in the division -- remember this trip as the season's turning point.
"It's huge. We knew how important this road trip was, the position we were starting in and knowing how tough it is to travel and all those things.," said Predators captain Mike Fisher. "It's tested us in a lot of different ways, but we've played real hard and we're coming into our own."
Changes coming in Colorado?
Mired in a 1-8-1 slump entering Monday, major changes could be on the horizon in Denver.
While new coach Jared Bednar has struggled in his adjustment to the NHL, questions have been swirling around some of the major players in Colorado's lineup and whether they could be shipped off before the trade deadline on March 1.
The club already dealt veteran enforcer Cody McLeod to Nashville on Jan. 13, and more moves could be made.
Executive vice president and general manager Joe Sakic must now decide which players will remain as a part of the core and which ones to deal in order to rebuild. It's believed that the only untouchables could be forwards Nathan MacKinnon (21 years old) and Mikko Rantanen (20).
Forward Matt Duchene has been the subject of trade rumors dating back to the summer while captain Gabriel Landeskog, still just 24 years old, could also be on the move.
Other names to keep an eye on as the deadline approaches are forward Jarome Iginla and defenseman Tyson Barrie.
Laine nears return for Winnipeg
Good news for the Winnipeg Jets this week as rookie forward Patrik Laine appears close to a return from a concussion.
Laine, who was hurt in Winnipeg's game against the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 7, has missed the past two weeks of action but could return as soon as Tuesday when the Jets play the San Jose Sharks.
Laine, the Jets' lone representative for this weekend's All-Star Game in Los Angeles, is among contenders for the Calder Trophy, with 21 goals this season, one behind rookie leader Auston Matthews.
After Laine returned to practice over the weekend, Jets coach Paul Maurice said he's been pleased with how Laine has responded.
"He feels really good," Maurice said Monday. "He's been banging on the door a little bit here. He's feeling strong. He's feeling ready."