Predators Fulfilling Potential In Run To Western Conference Finals

Predators Fulfilling Potential In Run To Western Conference Finals
Photo: © Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
The Nashville Predators have embodied the definition of a "roller coaster" team after entering this season with the highest expectations in the franchise's 18-year history.

The Predators were pegged as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders and have lived up to that hype by reaching their first Western Conference finals -- a series they open on the road at the Anaheim Ducks on Friday at 9 PM ET.

But while the Predators showed signs of dominance during the regular season, the team also had streaks in which it was entirely outmatched and out of sync.

A lack of identity made for an uninspiring 2-5-1 month of October, and goaltender Pekka Rinne failed to support the team, sporting a lackluster 3.22 GAA and .891 save percentage in that time.

The summer's blockbuster trade of Shea Weber for P.K. Subban shifted the defensive game of the Predators, who became faster, more mobile, and more offensively driven from the back end with the addition of Subban.

However, the team found itself quickly after it took on the mold of its enviable defense. Coach Peter Laviolette discovered a balance among his defensive pairs and demanded two-way responsibility from his forwards to make up for the high-risk, high-reward style they provided.

But identity wasn't the only issue. Slow starts, coupled with injuries, made for inconsistent showings for the Predators and held down what appeared to be a potent team on paper.

Slow Starts

Much like the uninspiring start to the team's season, the inability for top line players Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg to find the scoresheet during the first part of the year hindered the team's success. 

Entering his first full season with the team, Johansen opened the year with three assists in his first game. Johansen is an indisputable No. 1 center -- he drives possession and finished 17th in faceoffs taken and 21st in faceoff percentage among the entire NHL. But following game one, he totaled just one goal and eight assists through the first 18 games.

The 24-year-old posted a 33-goal season in 2014-15 (71 points) and a 26-goal season in 2015-16 (63 points), showing flashes of brilliance that comes with being a former fourth overall pick.

Forsberg, 22, broke out in 2014-15 with 26 goals and 63 points, becoming the player that general manager David Poile expected when he traded for Forsberg in 2013.

Forsberg followed up his 26-goal, 63-point campaign with 33 goals and 64 points in 2015-16. The addition of Johansen was expected to help bring Forsberg's play to the next level. The pair showed immediate chemistry, but luck didn't appear to be on Forsberg's side, shooting just 3 percent after the team's first 20 games.

It wasn't until his 28th game that the Swede scored his third goal of the season. In the next 54 games, Forsberg would right the ship and score another 28 goals to finish with 31 on the season.

Impact From Injury 

As Johansen and Forsberg started heating up, the team was hit with an injury to Ryan Ellis, who missed eight games between November 23 and December 13. During that time, the Predators went 3-4-1 as they struggled to fill the hole left on defenseman Roman Josi's right side.

Upon Ellis' return to the lineup, the team would lose Subban to a back injury. The former Norris Trophy winner missed 16 straight games between December 15 and January 20, during which the team went 8-5-3. 

Just two games after Subban's return, Josi would miss the next nine games between January 12 and February 4. The team went 6-2-1 in that time.

It wasn't until early February when the team had Subban, Ellis, Josi, and Mattias Ekholm in the lineup consistently. Leading up to early February, the Predators had Subban, Josi, Ellis, and Ekholm in the lineup together for just 23 of 53 games.

The Predators' top four defensemen finally found themselves together in the lineup on February 9. The four defensemen played together in 28 of the team's final 29 games, and Nashville went 14-10-4 in that span.

Promising Playoffs

The Predators limped into the playoffs as the second wild card after going 2-5-0 over their last seven games. Nashville's sluggish end to the season and a first-round matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks were certainly an intimidating combination for fans and the team alike.

But the Predators embraced the challenge and overpowered Chicago with speed and tenacity, winning four straight for the franchise's first-ever sweep.

While they managed to stretch the series to six games, the St. Louis Blues couldn't find a solution to Conn Smythe favorite Rinne or the Predators, either. 

With its key players finally healthy, Nashville is playing like the Stanley Cup contending team they were expected to be heading into 2016-17. The offense has been flowing through the defense, and the team's defense has accounted for 27 of 80 points through the team's first 10 playoff games.

The Predators' playoff surge has shown the true ability of the team, which is built on a strong defensive core and balanced offense being supported from Rinne in goal.

Nashville now turns its attention to Anaheim. The Predators went 1-1-1 against the Ducks during the regular season. It is also a rematch of last year's first-round series, in which Nashville defeated Anaheim 4-3.

Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @JMessing23.
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