Before the season started, if someone told you that the Ducks would be leading the league on January 4 and facing the team with the second best record in the West, you might think it was Chicago, or St. Louis or Los Angeles (HA! Just kidding we all know they don't give a sh** about the regular season) or maybe even Dallas the way the hype was rolling on them. As it happens, the Nashville Predators are three points behind the Ducks for the best record in the league and have three games in hand. The only thing separating these two teams in the standings is the margin of error... should be a good one.
Why are the Preds so much better than expected? Well, to put it simply they're giving up fewer goals, thanks to the return of Pekka Rinne and they're scoring more thanks to revelatory seasons from Filip Forsberg and Mike Ribeiro, as well as a whole new offensive scheme from Peter Laviolette. Sounds like a pretty good combination unless you're a subscriber to PDO, in which the Preds lead the league in 5-on-5 play with 102.8 (side note: The Ducks are shockingly, right in the middle of the table at 15th with a 100.2 PDO, but nobody seems to be mentioning that anymore. Hmm...).
The Preds are currently scoring 2.95 goals per game. That's a higher rate than they've had to end any season since 2007, when a certain former Ducks franchise player led them to 3.24 G/GP average. Right now their leading scorer is the aforementioned Forsberg (14-22-36 in 37 GP). At this point in his career you can't mention Filip Forsberg's name without pointing out that he was acquired by Nashville in one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory from the Washington Capitals for Martin Erat and Michael Latta. Considering Erat scored two goals and 27 points in 62 games for the Caps, Latta is a utility grinder and the Calder Trophy is Forsberg's to lose at this point, not to mention it was well known at the time even that Forsberg was Washington's best prospect, I'd have to agree.
Second to Forsberg on the Nashville scoring chart is Mike Ribeiro, who is quietly having quite the bounce back season. Last year in Phoenix was pretty terrible for him offensively, only putting up 47 points in 80 games (.587 P/GP). Through 37 games this year he's already up to 32 points for .865 P/GP, above his career average (.763) and right in line with his numbers from his last few seasons in Dallas, although it's down from his 47 points in 48 games with Washington during the lockout shortened 2013 season.
With those two, not to mention James Neal who, understandably, isn't lighting it up like he did on Evegeni Malkin's wing, is just another addition of offense to the historically defense first franchise, the Preds are relying less on Shea Weber's offense to carry the team. However, Webber is still doing his Norris thing, third in scoring on the team, logging tons of minutes, etc., etc.
That additional offensive punch was more than evident yesterday afternoon at Staples, where the Preds beat the Kings 7-6 in overtime, after having led 5-1 early in the second period. I don't really see how one game could possibly encapsulate the difference between Barry Trotz' Nashville Predators and Peter Laviolette's any better. What wasn't on display yesterday was the resurgence of Pekka Rinne.
The gigantic Finnish goaltender did play yesterday but uncharacteristically gave up six goals on 30 shots. While that's bad for any goalie, it's especially bad for one as good as Rinne and especially, especially bad when he's been having his best season since 2011, in terms of save percentage. Rinne had a rough 2013, by his incredibly high standards, and missed most of last year after undergoing hip surgery right at the beginning of the season. But this year, he's back to his old bony self again, as Jack Skellington once said, riding a .929 save percentage, and that's after yesterday's goal fest in LA.
Now, there are two ways to look at yesterday's performance from an Anaheim perspective. First, it could be a perfect break, as the second of back to backs after a goalie has given up six goals and the team almost blew a four goal lead would seem to be a perfect time to go with backup Carter Hutton, who incidentally has made two of his four starts this season in the second half of back to backs. On the other hand, Laviolette could see this as a good chance to throw Rinne back in, knowing that there is no way in Hell that he will give up anywhere near that many twice in a row. In which case, beware of Pekka Rinne with something to prove.
Side note: This is only the fourth back to back scenario the Preds have had all season. The Ducks have already had seven! WTF?!
What Can We Learn From This Game:
Notice that the previous section was entirely about the Predators? Two reasons for that, 1) They're fascinating and 2) for the first time, seemingly all season, the Ducks are just about fully healthy (except for Eric Brewer, poor guy). Pretty much this whole year, that Game Notes section in our preview has been a list of who's out, who may come back, how many more games we have to wait for this guy, maybe we'll have another guy back but who knows the list will be completely reshuffled tomorrow anyway.
There are still a few guys working their way back up to full game speed, although Kyle Palmieri didn't miss a beat when he came back on Friday, but the main thing that the Ducks need is to stay healthy for a while and see exactly what this team is like at full strength.
There will be less than 13 combined goals scored.