Last week's 1-1-1 record was good enough to keep the Nashville Predators firmly in a playoff hunt. The Colorado Avalanche have lost six of their last nine, and the Minnesota Wild are in a death spiral so dire they jettisoned Mike Yeo in order to pull out of it.
The door is wide open for the Predators to gain some ground, but they'll have a challenge when the Central leading Dallas Stars come knocking on Bridgestone's doors tonight.
The Dallas Stars
The month of January was not kind to Dallas, and it looked like they may have started to fall off the map a little. The Stars only recorded three wins last month, and their sizable lead on the rest of the division disappeared. They are now tied with Chicago at 77 points, though the Stars have three games in hand.
But that slide has seemed to subside. February has seen the green team win five of its six games so far, including a nail-biter against the Washington Capitals where they hung four goals on Braden Holtby in one period. That's an accomplishment by itself, and it would have been more of a statement game had Washington not almost done the same thing to Kari Lehtonen. Tom Wilson was one post away from tying the game with four unanswered Washington goals, leading back to questions about how much Dallas' goaltending and defense will stack up with their elite offense.
Those aren't going to answered until the playoffs, however. As expected, their high on-ice shooting percentage is evening out with the sub-par on-ice save percentage. But if their sticks go cold at the wrong time, that could spell trouble. Just look at Sean McIndoe's historical breakdown of offensive-only power houses that have fallen apart when the postseason rolls around.
That's a conversation to be tabled for a couple of weeks, though. As of now, the regular season, the Stars are one of the elite teams in the NHL. They have their sights set on their first division championship since 2006, and they are in good position to challenge the Blackhawks for it.
But they may be entering Nashville with a host of injuries. Jason Spezza is still on injured reserve, while Cody Eakin and point machine Tyler Seguin are both questionable for this game. If that's the case, that would be a much welcomed break for the Predators.
The Nashville Predators
The only other times these two teams played, way back on New Years Eve, it was an embarrassment for Nashville. In a measuring stick game, the Predators showed they had no business hanging with one of the best teams in the league.
Even if Seguin and Eakin don't suit up, tonight will still be another test. This team usually follows up a great performance (like the one against the Panthers) with a couple stinkers in a row. Maybe they out shoot and out chance the opposition, but it's never works in their favor. This is not an easy week, but to gain ground in the standings Nashville is eventually going to have to string together wins against good teams.
The good news is that Filip Forsberg, James Neal and Ryan Johansen are firing on all cylinders right now. Even better? They aren't on the same line. Calle Jarnkrok has been wonderful in his box seat with Joey and Neal, making the most of the top line minutes he's given. As long as he's producing with those two (four goals, one assist in his past five games) there may not need to be any debate as to who their left wing is going to be.
The new debate is goaltending. Carter Hutton raises a lot of ire within the Preds' fan base, but it's impossible to ignore how well he's been playing this year against how poorly Pekka Rinne has been. Hutton's numbers are miles better than they've ever been in his career, and that may very well be a product of small sample size. He only has nine starts/appearances in 56 games for the Predators. That's ridiculous, and also unfair to have Rinne playing that much when he hasn't needed to.
So while those stats may possibly be above Hutton's actual rate of play, he's certainly earned more than the handful of starts they've given him. In fact, at this point it may be time to ride the hot hand regardless of who it is. Peter Laviolette may be doing just that.
FWIW, Pekka Rinne is on the ice 15 minutes before morning skate, running drills with Cody Bass and Gabriel Bourque...— Adam Vingan (@AdamVingan) February 15, 2016
The Predators' morning skate has begun, and Carter Hutton has assumed the "starter's crease."— Adam Vingan (@AdamVingan) February 15, 2016
Sights and Sounds
Back home in the Bridge for a 7 p.m. Central time puck drop. Tune into FS-TN and 102.5 The Game to hear how good Rinne has been this year, even though he isn't getting the start tonight.