By Brett LaBombarda (@bplabombarda)
Thanksgiving here in the US is an important milestone in the NHL season. All teams will have played between 20-24 games which equates to about a quarter of the season. It is around this time we begin to see teams coalesce into what they will more or less be for the duration of the season. As bleak as that sounds at first, there is actually a lot for the Central Division’s teams to be thankful for. With only 9 points between first place Nashville (30 points) and last place Colorado (21 points), it is the most tightly bunched division. But what has allowed the team to slip by the Blackhawks, Wild, and Stars – expected to be playoff teams by many – and run neck and run neck-and-neck with the West’s top teams?
A rejuvenated offense and Pekka Rinne rediscovering his Pekka Rinne-ness have propelled Nashville to the second best goal differential in the Conference and fourth best in the League – only Pittsburgh at plus-26, Chicago at plus-19, and Tampa at plus-17 are ahead It’s even more surprising that they have been able to sustain that success thus far with what is easily a bottom-tier powerplay. In fact, Filip Forsberg alone has scored an eye-opening two goals and five assists in two games apiece against Chicago and St. Louis…and none of those came on the man advantage.
Sure, the powerplay is a gaping hole in what has otherwise been a shining Nashville offense, but it’s also a testament to just how dominant the team has been at 5 on 5. And, sure, Nashville’s success lives and dies with the success of Pekka Rinne – whose even strength save percentage (.942) is hovering above the pack and in an elite group that includes Brian Elliott (.950), Craig Anderson (.944), and Roberto Luongo (.941). But, the epicenter of Nashville’s unexpected climb to the top of the Central Division is within an even strength attack that is doing just as good of a job suppressing shots as it is generating them.
With such a significant up-tick in shots for percentage (SF%), the Preds have more often than not given their goaltender less work on average than the opponent’s. Pekka Rinne and Carter Hutton are not the only beneficiaries, however. Craig Smith and Colin Wilson have been having stealthily solid seasons while the Forsberg-Neal-Ribeiro line has been nothing short of a revelation. As much as American Thanksgiving can be the “You must be this tall to ride” sign of the NHL season, it will be a true test for Nashville to see if they can keep up the excellent even strength play next Thursday against the Blues, and again two days later against the Blackhawks.
If the Preds can rest easy over the holiday after a thrilling win against the Kings – in which the offense kept pace and Rinne was as spectacular as a goalie can possibly be while allowing 3 goals – knowing that their 5-on-5 play is not only a strength, but a weapon, there is plenty to be thankful for.
Thursday Nov 27: Edmonton @ Nashville
A battle between Devan Dubnyk’s two former NHL employers is the only Turkey Day game on the docket. If the Oilers are going to win a game against a Western Conference team any time soon (0-11-1 against the West), they might just need Ben Scrivens (or Victor Fasth, who knows?) to play like this…or at the very least, to stop doing his Anders Lindback impression.
Saturday Nov 29: Columbus @ Nashville
The BJ’s just keep getting beat up like a marching drum. I know, I know, its going to be easier said than done, but without two of its top-6 forwards and two top-4 defensemen, the Blue Jackets fans might start to hear the names McDavid and Eichel a little more often. Hey, maybe we’ll get to see David Perron on two different teams?