|Surging Predators ready to roll over struggling Rangers|
After losing in the Stanley Cup Final, many teams struggle out of the gate the following season. The Nashville Predators are no exception.
Fortunately for them, the Predators' hangover appears to have lasted two games.
Nashville comes to Madison Square Garden to face the New York Rangers on Saturday afternoon on a 4-0-1 run, a strong response to dropping their first two games by a combined 8-3. The heart of that turnaround has been defense, as the Predators have held their past four opponents to three regulation goals.
"After the first two, three games, I think that was the main thing, to play tighter as a team and make good decisions," Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne said to The Tennessean. "By no means are we a defensive team. I think we play a fast game and play up and down the ice, but as a five-man unit, not (getting) separated too much, things like that, that's been our focus."
One persistent issue that likely has nothing to do with a hangover and everything to do with a shakeup of the roster is a lack of offense. James Neal had 23 goals in 70 games last season for Nashville, but the team lost him in the expansion draft to the Vegas Golden Knights.
Replacements were expected from within, with youngsters Colton Sissons, Pontus Aberg, Kevin Fiala and Frederick Gaudreau being called upon to score more after an impressive showing in last year's playoffs. But overall, this group hasn't done much this season.
"(Neal's) a tough commodity to find around the NHL that puts up 20 (goals) a year almost automatically," Sissons said to The Tennessean. "That's no easy task to fill in that role, but I think we've got a couple younger guys that can chip in offensively and fill that void collectively."
"I do think that we've started to take strides in the right direction," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said to The Tennessean. "The first couple games, I didn't see our offensive identity at all."
Nashville's problems are minor compared to what the Rangers are facing.
New York (1-5-2) is off to its worst start since opening the 1943-44 season 0-14-1. The Rangers have lost five straight, are allowing 3.63 goals per game, are last in the league in penalty killing and have given up a goal within the first three minutes of games in four of eight contests.
"It's too many games now where we allow the first goal," said Henrik Lundqvist, who as a .905 save percentage in seven games. "I think we do a lot of good things. Obviously when we don't get the wins it's easy to get stuck on mistakes, the missed opportunities, or not coming up with that extra save. But at the same time, we are doing a lot of good things as a group. We just need that extra play right now, that's the difference."
That mentality epitomizes Rick Nash, who is playing well but owns only one goal in eight games. He has 34 shots, which is tied for fourth in the NHL, but his inability to convert on his prime scoring chances has done just as much to hold back the Rangers in the early going as anything.
"Sooner or later you have to convert," Nash said. It's tough right now. Goals come in bunches and you know when you're in a drought it's always tough. Opportunities are there, have to keep taking the puck to the net and sooner or later it will start to go in."