The Nashville Predators, who have only 56 games to prove they are worthy of the playoffs, are off to a perfect start.
A 3-1 win on Thursday followed up by a 5-2 win on Saturday (both over the Columbus Blue Jackets) has the Predators tied for first place in the new Central Division. Sure, there’s a long way to go, but for a team that desperately needs to find a new identity, winning is a sure way to find one.
And so far, the identity of the team appears to be improved mental toughness.
“When you play in tight games like this, there’s great learning lessons in it,” head coach John Hynes said after the game. “Your decisions matter, every play matters. It’s not just where you’re up and you can do whatever you want, when you’re in tight hockey games, you really have to be mentally tough, mentally focused.”
In both games, the Preds started with a goal deficit. Needing to find their legs while down on the scoreboard is part of that mental toughness that John Hynes has been talking about for a year now.
John Hynes: “It was a little bit of adversity in both games, which I do like. When we wound up finding a way to score, it was later in the game. When you play in tight games like this, there’s great learning lessons from it and I think they’re really good for this hockey team.”
— Robby Stanley (@RStanleyNHL) January 17, 2021
Battling through mistakes, battling through adversity, battling through killing penalties. All of the things that normally lead to losses, the Preds have been able to fight back and find two wins.
“You’ve got to continue to battle, you’ve got to have mental stamina and competitive stamina. I think that’s what we’ve taken out of these games and it’s something we’ve got to continue to build off of.”
Newcomer and 16-year NHL veteran Brad Richardson scored the go-ahead goal in the 3rd period on Saturday. He’s someone who knows all about battling through adversity to find wins.
“[The 3rd period] was a better period, I don’t think we had our best stuff tonight, [Juuse Saros] held us in there for most tonight. But you know, you’ve got to find ways to win and we did, so we’ll take it.”
But the Nashville Predators’ identity isn’t just about mental toughness. So far, at least through two games, it’s been about offensive and defensive balance.
Preds bring balance in first two wins
In two games, the Preds have eight goals. Six different players have scored goals, while 15 different players have found their way onto the scoresheet. They’ve had goal or point contributions from every forward line and every defensive pairing.
The only position group to not get on the scoreboard is the one you’d expect: the goaltender. But Juuse Saros has certainly been doing his job; he has 71 saves on 74 shots for a .959 save percentage so far.
But it’s not just about scoring. The level of play has been consistent no matter who is on the ice.
In the first win, Matt Duchene’s line (the 2nd line) excelled, as did Colton Sissons’ line (the 3rd line). In the second win, the Johansen line (the 1st line) brought tons of pressure, allowing the 4th line, anchored by Brad Richardson, to capitalize.
All four forward lines contributing at the right moments.
Defensively, it’s the same story.
The top pairing of Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis has been as good as you’d expect. They lead the team in ice time, though not by as wide a margin as last year. Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro have held their own as the middle pair, but it’s the newcomers Mark Borowiecki and Matt Benning that have been the difference makers.
Roman Josi & Ryan Ellis being able to play under 20 minutes because your 3rd pair isn’t a tire fire?
— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) January 17, 2021
“I think the pairing of Borowiecki and Benning, you feel very comfortable with those guys on the ice,” John Hynes said. “Even tonight, we did play them at times against Dubois’ line, so it doesn’t always have to be Josi and Ellis, or Ekholm and Fabbro, or whoever it is. But I think that both of those players have come in and they’ve played really well.”
Having two solid bottom pairing guys that have found chemistry so quickly has helped improve a defense that struggled last year. Hynes being comfortable putting those guys in any situation gives the team an added edge that we didn’t see with Dan Hamhuis and Yannick Weber.
— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) January 17, 2021
“It gives you six defensemen that you can play in multiple situations, both guys have done a good job on the penalty kill, and that can save us up some hard minutes for other players. I’d say in two games, the chemistry between Borowiecki and Benning have been very good and their individual performances have been strong.”
If balance holds, Preds will succeed
Any successful NHL team is going to have balance at both ends. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup last year, not because their elite players Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman were dominant, but because their depth held when it mattered most.
In the offseason, David Poile restructured the Nashville Predators’ lineup with the goal of improving the team’s depth. He knew the team would need balance at both forward and defense with the team facing a condensed 56-game schedule.
He also knew the team’s blueline needed a massive upgrade. Adding Mark Borowiecki and Matt Benning instantly made the defense better. Borowiecki brings a physical presence without losing too much speed or skill with the puck, and Benning brings smart decision making and quick skates to get the puck out of trouble.
Then Poile added Brad Richardson, Nick Cousins, and Erik Haula, all of which have found roles in the first two games. The trade for Luke Kunin has worked out as well, as he’s scored two goals in the team’s first two games.
Right now, the Nashville Predators look balanced, poised, and mentally tough. With 54 games to go, if that trend holds, more success will come.
— Featured image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports —