Wednesday, February 29, 2012
On March 1st of 2011, the Nashville Predators found themselves in 10th place in the Western Conference standings and battling just to make it into the postseason picture. On March 1st of 2012, the Predators find themselves in a different situation.
Nashville currently sits in fifth place in the Western Conference with a 10-point cushion on the eighth place Dallas Stars. They are still in contention for the Central Division title, and still have a chance of winning the number one overall seed in the Western Conference going into the playoffs.
Given that the Predators aren't on the playoff bubble coming into March for a change, is there still the same sense of urgency with this year's team as there would be if they were battling for the final playoff spot?
"It's still the same. The good thing about this year is that we have a chance to catch the guys ahead of us. If we play well down the stretch, we have that opportunity to maybe take first in our division. I think the pressure is still there because there are a bunch of good teams chasing us right now. We definitely want to look ahead and not behind us," said Predators defenseman Kevin Klein.
"We're in a different situation than we were last year. We're pushing to win the division, so every game is important. We're just trying to get as many points as we can," said Predators forward Matt Halischuk.
Nashville is a much younger team this year than they were in the 2010-2011 season. The Predators lost veteran players like Steve Sullivan and J.P. Dumont in the offseason, and began the season as the youngest team in the NHL. That is not usually a recipe for success.
Still, the Predators have overcome their youth so far this year. They are actually a better team than they were last year, and a lot of that has been due to the stellar play of Nashville's rookies when they have been called upon.
"I think everyone is just improving as a player. We've had a lot of young guys come in and step up and play very well for us. We do have a lot of youth, and they are doing a great job handling the pressures. The last 20 games will be kind of a precursor to the playoffs. It will be good to see how they handle it," Klein said.
As has become expected around Music City, Barry Trotz has his team right in the thick of things as the calendar turns to March. The Predators have always been known for being a team that works hard, no matter how much talent they have on the ice. This year, that hard work has been combined with a little more talent, which has made the Predators even tougher to contend with on a nightly basis.
"There's obviously different personnel, but the same identity is still there. We want to be a hard-working team and try to grind teams down," Halischuk said.
So far this season, the Predators have been grinding teams down with regularity. They are one of only five teams to surpass the 80-point threshold so far this season, and they are within six points of the Central Division lead.
March will be the most critical month of the season for the Predators. With the depth that the additions of Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad gives them, expect Nashville to make a serious push for the Central Division title.
(Photo Credit: Leanne Charles)