Not too long ago, the sky was falling in Nashville, and the Predators were melting down.
In a ten-game stretch from Dec. 29 through Jan. 19, Nashville went 2-6-2 and knocked the Preds out of playoff position.
However, now, the Predators enter the NHL All-Star Break in the second wild card spot with a 24-18-8 record (56 points) after winning four straight and five of their last six contests.
So what has changed for the Predators?
One of the reasons Nashville fell into a slump was because of Pekka Rinne’s struggles. Though Rinne was named a Central Division All-Star, he was certainly not playing like one.
In nine starts from Dec. 26 through Jan. 19, Rinne was 2-6-1 with a 3.39 goals against average and a 0.884-save percentage. It goes without saying that is well below expectations.
However, when the Predators played the Winnipeg Jets to begin a four-game road trip, Rinne was different. He was better and back to being “Rinne-like.”
Rinne has won his last three starts with a 1.01 GAA and a 0.963 SV-%.
Rinne is the back-bone of the Predators, and they will only go as far in the playoffs as he will take them. If he continues to be on this tear, he could be in contention for the Vezina Trophy at the end of the year.
Nashville’s slump in early January forced general manager David Poile to make a roster change. On Jan. 6, prized defenseman Seth Jones was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Ryan Johansen.
Johansen gave the Preds their first true first line center in franchise history and changed the complexity of the lineup. No longer were there any excuses for a lack in scoring.
The transition from Columbus to Nashville has been smooth for Johansen, as he is averaging a point-per-game with ten points (three goals, seven assists) in as many games.
From another aspect of the trade, Jones’ absence allows Mattias Ekholm to play a larger role offensively, especially on the power-play.
Ekholm, who Nashville re-signed to a six-year, $22.5 million contract extension through 2022 on Oct. 26, is a smooth skater and great at possessing the puck. Essentially, he is the prototypical defenseman for head coach Peter Laviolette’s system.
Ekholm enters the break on a six-game point streak with one goal and six assists. He has taken full advantage of the opportunity to fill Jones’ role.
Primary scoring is essential for any team’s success, and the Predators have it right now. Besides Ekholm and Johansen, six other Predators are hot offensively.
Nashville’s scoring leader Roman Josi has a goal and three assists in his last six games, Mike Ribeiro has 14 points (3 g, 11 a) in the last 18, James Neal has three goals and three assists in the last seven, Mike Fisher has two goals and one assist in his past three and Craig Smith has two goals and an assists in his previous four.
For years, the Predators have struggled with consistent scoring from their top forwards. As for now, it is no longer an issue.
After the Predators are done showcasing the Music City during All-Star Weekend, they will begin a four-game home stand versus the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 2. With only 32 games remaining in the regular season, Nashville will have to finish strong in order to make the playoffs.