The Nashville Predators took an impressive 14-game point streak into March, but wound up clinching a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs while on a three-game losing streak.
The point streak from Feb. 12 to March 9 was the longest in Nashville history, and the Predators earned at least a point in 17 of their past 22 games. They haven’t won since March 26, but qualified for the postseason when the Colorado Avalanche lost to the Washington Capitals on Friday.
Center Ryan Johansen, acquired in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 6, and linemate James Neal are producing. Though it took time for them to mesh, they have found their stride. Since March 1, Neal leads the Predators with 17 points in 15 games, and Johansen is tied for second with 13 points (he has eight goals, 21 assists since the trade).
Nashville, which is 14-5-4 since Feb. 12, made the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
Here are five reasons the Predators clinched:
Nashville went back to the basics prior to the NHL All-Star break following an up-and-down first half of the season. The main focus was on team defense: playing smart, playing hard.
The Predators showed their improvement during a 4-0-0 Canadian road trip, defeating the Winnipeg Jets (4-1), Edmonton Oilers (4-1), Vancouver Canucks (2-1) and Calgary Flames (2-1) leading up to the break.
“We wanted to play hard and play good defensively,” forward Mike Fisher said March 17. “Our [defensemen] do a good job, but our forwards, we knew we needed to do a better job, and I think we’ve done that. [Goalie Pekka Rinne] has been outstanding. When your goalie is making those big saves, he can give the group in front a lot more confidence too.”
The improved defense resulted in better outcomes; the Predators are 15-8-5 since the All-Star break.
2. Point streak
The Predators were 9-0-5 during their 14-game point streak, getting 23 points and taking a seven-point lead for the first wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference.
“It got us some separation from the teams below us,” defenseman Roman Josi told the Predators website after a 4-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on March 12 ended the streak.
Nashville averaged 3.21 goals per game during that stretch, compared to its season average of 2.73.
3. Second-line success
Forsberg, 21, has an NHL career-high 31 goals, including two hat tricks. He had 26 goals and a career-high 63 points in 82 games last season as a rookie.
Like many of the Predators, Forsberg has turned it up a notch since the All-Star break. He had 14 goals in 50 games at the break, and has scored 17 goals in 28 games since.
Forsberg scored three goals in a 3-2 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 23, and had three in a 5-0 win against the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 27. Forsberg, who became the first player in Nashville history with two hat tricks in a season, set a Predators record for most goals in a month when he scored 12 in 11 February games.
“He’s looked unbelievable and made some great plays,” Fisher said on Feb. 29. “I would say just overall playing smarter, taking advantage of his chances. … It’s really fun to watch as a teammate.”
Ribeiro has seven goals, and his 42 assists are second on the Predators (behind defenseman Josi’s 44). Smith has 20 goals and 15 assists.
Rinne, 33, is 12-3-3 with a 2.33 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and two shutouts since Feb. 12. He has won five in a row before Nashville’s recent three-game slide, allowing two goals four times and one once in the victories.
He is 32-21-10 with a 2.48 goals-against average, a .908 save percentage and four shutouts in 64 starts.
5. Offensive defensemen
Top-pair defensemen Shea Weber and Josi continue to deliver on offense for the Predators, even more than they did last season.
Josi’s 57 points are two behind Forsberg for the Nashville lead, and his 44 assists are the most in a season by a Predators defenseman; he passed Weber’s 56 (2013-14) when he scored his 13th goal in a 4-3 loss to the Avalanche on Monday.
Weber moved into second place in Nashville’s all-time list with his 164th goal March 26 in a 5-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets. His 48 points (18 goals, 30 assists) are fifth on the Predators.
“He plays a big game,” coach Peter Laviolette told the Predators website March 26. “He provides that heavy presence on the back end. Again, the offense is easy; to look at the goals, and his shot on the goal he scored tonight was awesome. But he provides so many heavy minutes for us against the top players on every team, and he does it night in and night out.
“His leadership and his presence on the ice is incredible; it’s the stability of us. The offense speaks for itself.”