Skip to Content

It’s A Beautiful Day To Be The Predators

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - MARCH 26: Gustav Nyquist #14 celebrates his power play goal with Filip Forsberg #9 of the Nashville Predators against the Vegas Golden Knights during an NHL game at Bridgestone Arena on March 26, 2024 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)
John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

The standings will tell you that only four points separate the Nashville Predators (in seventh place) from the Vegas Golden Knights (eighth). But the Standings Of The Heart tell a different story. In these, the defending champions are the anxious underachievers just barely clinging to hopes of a repeat, while the Preds are living out their wildest dreams. Heading into their collision on Tuesday, Nashville was riding an absurdly hot month that had transformed a banal season into a party like the old days. They hadn't lost in regulation since Feb. 15, and after a first half marked by mediocre scoring and unreliable defense, they were suddenly the better team on the ice almost every single night.

Vegas, still clawing for points but enjoying a respectable three-game win streak of their own, had a prime opportunity to burst Nashville's bubble. Despite the past month of results, the Knights' recent postseason accomplishments still carried more gravitas and commanded more respect. A dominant performance here, and Preds supporters might again doubt their ability to hang with the real teams when it mattered most. For 45 minutes, that's what Vegas delivered—stifling the home team's momentum with a three-goal wave in the first period, then scoring late in the second to make it 4-1.

But just as the local announcers sounded like they were starting to accept the off night, Ryan O'Reilly notched a goal from some traffic in the slot to cut the gap to 4-2 with 14 minutes left. Six minutes later, leading scorer Filip Forsberg earned a grimy one off some fearless play from Jason Zucker at the crease's edge. And with the power play off a failed Vegas challenge, the Preds compressed the defense and allowed Gus Nyquist a clean shot for the equalizer. When the team was losing boring games and missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 2014, I was ready to move on from Nashville as the NHL's Southern rager capital. But this crowd started getting noise complaints from all the way up in Kentucky when the score hit 4-4.

A tie evolved into a win, of course, and it was captain Roman Josi—still one of the game's most dynamic defensemen—who achieved it with some smooth skating around and then behind his Vegas obstacles. That lackluster first period was ancient history, because the Predators were victors yet again.

What's funny about this Predators charge is how familiar it all feels, not just because of the goal song but also the people responsible. The big productive pieces on Nashville over the last few weeks are guys like Josi, Forsberg and Nyquist ("the Swedish meatballs"), O'Reilly, and Juuse Saros in net. Those four skaters have played all 72 games, and Saros leads all goalies in appearances. The team certainly didn't need to commission a full renovation in order to become imposing again.

If there is an X factor, it's the new line of Tommy Novak, Luke Evangelista, and Mark Jankowski controlling their minutes and providing some secondary support. Evangelista's in his first full season at 22 years old; Novak, slightly more established at 26, was until January his roommate; and Jankowski, 29, returned from some hard time spent in the minors just as the team heated up. In the early stages of Tuesday's game, they showed a keen understanding of how to probe the defense with their passing and were eventually rewarded with their team's first goal. But they could have had a few more to go with it on multiple dramatic chances, like this impressive Jiří Patera save.

More broadly, Nashville played as a quality-over-quantity team all season, but when good shots aren't falling, and your star goalie isn't up to his usual standard, you can't just change the bad luck through sheer force of will. Instead, the Preds stuck it out until their outcomes matched the process.

More than any on-ice adjustment, however, the mythology that's embedded itself in this team's turnaround is The U2 Concert That Wasn't. This story also, coincidentally, has to do with a rejection of the allure of Las Vegas, that city of blinding lights. On Feb. 19, the team was slated for a group outing to the band's show at the Sphere. But head coach Andrew Brunette and GM Barry Trotz decided to cancel it. "We're having trouble getting our mind around what's important, and that's hockey," Brunette said after a 9-2 loss to the Stars. "Our mind has to be in the game and it can't be in our vacations."

As O'Reilly tells it, the players salvaged their pride in the name of love the next day ahead of their Knights game, when someone put on "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" after the morning skate. What came next was the sweetest thing. The win in Vegas became part two of an eight-game win streak, and the team has been stuck in a moment ever since. (And it's not all because of Juuse.) The Predators looked like an atomic bomb at the trade deadline, one that needed to be dismantled. But since then it's been nothing but elevation in the West, and the only threat they pose is to whoever's going to meet them in the first round of the playoffs.

If you liked this blog, please share it! Your referrals help Defector reach new readers, and those new readers always get a few free blogs before encountering our paywall.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter