NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Pinning down a single reason for the Nashville Predators’ resurgence this season is nearly impossible.
There’s a new coach in Peter Laviolette bringing his offensive approach. New scorers in James Neal and Mike Ribeiro. And Pekka Rinne is healthy and back to dominating form as one of the NHL’s stingiest goaltenders.
Add in the league’s top rookie through the first 20 games, and the combination has the Predators atop the Central Division and third in the Western Conference after missing the playoffs the past two seasons.
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”It’s been a good start, but at the same time to stay at the top of the league it’s probably the hardest thing, and everybody who comes here or any team we’re going to face they want to get a piece of us,” Rinne said. ”You have to be ready for it. But it’s been good. All the changes we’ve made … obviously you got the record. It’s easy to say that it’s been working.”
The Predators have yet to lose consecutive games yet and have 30 points through 21 games after a 4-3 shootout win Tuesday night over the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. The Predators now are 8-1-1 at home and 5-1-1 against the Pacific Division.
Defense always has been a Nashville hallmark, and the Predators are tied for second in the NHL in goals-against average allowing 2.10 goals per game.
Now the Predators are scoring. They are second in the NHL scoring five-on-five and have outscored opponents 47-28 in an area the Predators were minus-21 last season. They also are the league’s least-penalized team averaging only 7 penalty minutes per game.
Forward Eric Nystrom credited everyone with being on the same page quickly in the first season with Laviolette, hired in May as only the second coach in this franchise’s history.
”That makes such a huge difference when you can rely on your teammate being in the right position so you can go in a certain situation and knowing you’re going to go in those situations,” Nystrom said.
Laviolette was hired to boost the offense for a team that struggled scoring the past two seasons under Barry Trotz. His system has freed up defensemen like captain Shea Weber to jump into the rush with the puck, and Laviolette has put together Neal and Ribeiro with rookie Filip Forsberg giving the Predators possibly their best top line yet.
The coach says he’s happy with how the Predators are working, and they’ve shown plenty of chemistry and confidence no matter the score. The Predators blew a 2-0 lead late in regulation Saturday night against Florida only to win when Forsberg scored the only goal in the shootout.
”Even if sometimes when we’re down by two, it doesn’t seem to phase our guys that much,” Laviolette said.
Rinne is off to the best start of his career with his 14 wins tying him for the most in the league, and he ranks second in goals-against average (1.97). It’s a big change from a year ago when the Finland native was healing from surgery to clear an infection out of his hip, limiting him to 24 games last season when Nashville missed the postseason by three points.
The goaltender isn’t thinking about the past two years now.
”Our team is totally different now, and obviously personally you want to always play as well as you can possibly play,” Rinne said.
Forsberg has helped the scoring. Acquired from Washington in a trade for Martin Erat in April 2013, the rookie ranks 12th in the NHL with 22 points and also leads the league with a plus-18 rating, meaning he’s been on the ice for 18 more even-strength and shorthanded goals his team has scored than allowed.
Nystrom said the Predators just need to keep improving and peak in the playoffs. Nashville has plenty of room to do that on special teams ranking 26th on the penalty kill and 24th on the power play – last on home ice scoring only one goal with the man advantage.
”It’s going to be a test to see if we can stay at the top,” Nystrom said. ”That’s not an easy challenge, and we’re looking forward to that.”