Thursday January 22nd, 2015

You remember the Nashville Predators. Light on talent, heavy on heart. If you asked them to break a dollar they'd hand you five quarters. Always gave everything they had.

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Problem was, they didn't have much. Not enough skill. Not enough depth. Right from the start of the franchise in 1998, this team was destined to scrap and claw but inevitably fall short.

Well, not anymore. This season's Preds are different. They've got skill, averaging 2.96 goals per game to rank ninth in the league. They've got depth, with seven players on pace for 50 points.

And when he comes back from a stint on IR, they'll have a true gamebreaker between the pipes with Pekka Rinne.

For the first time in franchise history, the Predators aren't lovable. They're scary. And they're good enough to make a deep postseason run

There's still a lot of hockey left to play, but here are six reasons to believe in the Predators:

1. They're lethal at home.

It wasn't that long ago that visiting teams could count on some real hospitality when they came to Nashville: great music, great food and two points.

These days? Well, they'll have to settle for two out of three.

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Bridgestone Arena was the ultimate home ice advantage in the first half as the Preds rang up a ridiculous 18-2-1 mark.

How are they doing it? Consider that they were credited with only 362 hits, the fourth lowest total in the league.

Some might think that averaging 17 hits per game means that the Preds are soft. What it really indicates is that they're dominating possession. You're not throwing the body when you've always got control of the puck.

And Nashville isn't done racking up points at home. They play 21 of their final 37 games at Bridgestone and while they'll be hard pressed to maintain that .881 winning percentage, they're well positioned to hold on to top spot in the Central Division.

2. Their new system works.

Barry Trotz hockey is part of this team's DNA. There's nothing wrong with that and no reason to distance themselves from it. But new head coach Peter Laviolette has made things better. He's built on the Trotz model by instilling an uptempo philosophy geared toward generating more shots, more chances and more goals. The end result? More victories.

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It starts with the defense being not just more involved in the attack but responsible for generating it. That's made them more dangerous in the neutral zone and allowed them to enter the attack zone at full speed, which puts opposing defenses on their heels and creates more room to put pucks on the net.

The results have been impressive. The Preds ranked 23rd last season by averaging 29 shots per game. This year, they're at 32.4, which is good for third in the league.

And they're not just shooting. They creating higher-quality opportunities. In fact, they've been one of the best teams in the league at generating scoring chances. According to War On Ice, they rank second in the league at 54.2%, trailing only Tampa Bay (55.9), and they rank fourth in scoring chance differential (+152).

This is a team that is committed to taking control of the game in all three zones instead of one. And it's working.

3. They are dominant in the third period.

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Consider this an extension of the point above. The Preds are at their best when the game is on the line in the final 20 minutes. They rank fifth in the league in third period Corsi For percentage (53%) and first in Scoring Chances For (55.8%) and Scoring Chances Differential (+65).

What that says is that their system is highly effective at keeping the puck and generating more scoring opportunities. That doesn't always add up to wins, but it sure improves their chances. The Preds are 16-1-3 in games in which they lead after two periods and 12-1-2 when they're tied going into the third. That says it all.

4. They've manhandled the Central Division.

The way the current playoff model is devised, a team has to match up well against its divisional rivals in order to advance to the Cup finals. And no team in the West has a better divisional record than the 12-3-2 compiled by the Predators.

Sure, they've had their troubles with the Blackhawks (1-1-2), but they've gotten the best of the Blues (3-1), Jets (2-1), Stars (3-0), Wild (2-0) and Avalanche (1-0). They're not just banking points—they're crushing their pursuers.

5. They're better than you think.

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Sure, this was a team that relied heavily on the excellent Mike Ribeiro-James Neal-Filip Forsberg trio early on to power its offense, but Nashville's depth is finally starting to carry the day. Colin Wilson (14-17-31) is on pace to set new personal bests in every category before the end of January. Craig Smith (13-12-25) has provided consistent secondary scoring. And the defense, led by Shea Weber (10-20-30) and Roman Josi (7-21-28) has been a revelation, chipping in 114 points, a total second only to Calgary. For the first time in years, the Preds have legitimate depth.

6. Pekka Rinne will be back.

Not soon enough to salvage his Hart Trophy bid and probably not before his Vezina chances go by the wayside. But certainly in time to work his way back into game shape and do what matters most: lead this team on a deep playoff run.

 

 

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