First Class: Predators still on top of NHL

The surprise has worn off, the league pundits’ eyebrows have gone back to where they belong, and the hockey public has accepted this new day. The Nashville Predators are currently the best team in the National Hockey League. There are no signs of that changing anytime soon.

The Predators defeated the Colorado Avalanche 5-2 on Tuesday night to improve to 41-13-7 overall, 26-3-2 at Bridgestone Arena, for a league-high 89 points with 21 regular season games remaining. Nashville stands six points clear of the next best total of 83 by Montreal and Anaheim, but in the Central Division race are nine points clear of second-place St. Louis and 12 ahead of third-place Chicago.

Being division champions (besides a really nice banner) carries a matchup with a wild-card team, while second and third must battle each other. Currently the Preds would meet Minnesota in the first round while St. Louis and Chicago (arguably two of the top five teams in the league) would have to play each other in the first round. Also, the President’s Trophy comes with first overall in the regular season and that would be nice to get.

Nashville emerged from the all-star break with three games in four nights, a 4-3 overtime win over Colorado followed by a tough 5-4 shootout loss in St. Louis and one of the few clunkers of the season, a 3-0 loss in Colorado. Super Bowl Sunday brought one of the most complete performances of the season, a 4-0 win in Pittsburgh behind Carter Hutton. Hutton’s run of games for the injured Pekka Rinne concluded with a 4-3 win over Toronto. Hutton went 4-2-2 with Rinne sidelined—solid and it kept the Predators from falling backwards.

Rinne’s return saw the Anaheim Ducks come to town for what was a showdown between the top two records in the league. Pekka was rusty. A misplay and a deflection put the Preds down 2-0 early in route to a 5-2 defeat, though Nashville sent a message outshooting Anaheim 24-2 in the third period. The Predators then reeled off six straight wins never allowing more than two in any game. A 3-2 home win over the Rangers, then the following afternoon a rally from 2-0 down in the third to beat Florida 3-2 on the road really gave the team a jump.

Four straight home wins over Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, New Jersey and San Jose and then some trouble out east: a 5-2 loss to the Islanders and a shootout defeat in Philadelphia. Sunday saw another character-building moment as the Predators rallied late to get two points in Buffalo before Tuesday night’s impressive performance.

The final quarter of the season began on Thursday night. For the first time all season, remarkably, the Predators appeared on the leading national carrier of the NHL, NBC or the NBC Sports Network for the first of three remaining home tilts against Minnesota. The Detroit Red Wings return to town for their annual visit on Saturday afternoon before the Preds travel east again for games Monday and Tuesday at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers and at the Meadowlands against the Devils.

March sees a pivotal four-game trip out west including a back-to-back at the Kings and Ducks. Nashville hosts top East clubs the Islanders on March 5 and the Canadiens on March 24. They visit Tampa Bay and Barry Trotz’ Washington club on March 26 and March 28, after which the team plays four of their last five at home stretching into April and the Stanley Cup Playoffs.