Just around the time the first period in Nashville concluded Saturday night with the Predators launching a franchise-record 27 shots at the Columbus Blue Jackets, one had to ask himself: How many teams are playing better hockey than the Nashville Predators right now?
Shhhhh, the Preds don't want anyone to know, but they're 19-5-5 since Jan. 21 and 12-2-2 since Feb. 22, absolutely sizzling in their team game as the playoffs approach.
"We tried to keep it a secret as long as we could, but I guess it's got to come out at some point," chuckled Predators captain Shea Weber on Monday morning when I suggested they were flying under the radar.
Seriously though, after an opening half to the season that was marred by inconsistency and left many wondering if the Preds would even make the playoffs, they've steadied the ship and then some.
"I think all aspects of the game have kind of come together," said Weber in a phone interview. "Early on it was a little inconsistent, we would have a good period or a good game here and there, but couldn't really string anything together. I think we've just found a way, to a man, to bring our game every night and be a lot more consistent."
A year ago, the script was reversed: The Preds won only six of their final 21 regular-season games, including dropping their final six. Not how you want to enter the postseason, although they gave the Chicago Blackhawks all they could handle in a six-game first-round series.
"It's definitely different than last year," Weber said. "We were going the opposite way this time last year going into the playoffs. It's a better feeling, you're more confident. But at the same time, I don't think there's any certain way that's proven to win a Stanley Cup. I think some teams have struggled late and still gone on to win and some may have rolled into the playoffs and carried that to a Stanley Cup. So I don't know if there's a set method to get there, but it's definitely a good situation to be in.'"
They're scoring goals, for starters. Again, the opening-half narrative for this team was the frustration with the lack of offense from their forward group. Well, fast-forward two months later and you've got two 30-goal scorers on this team in Filip Forsberg and James Neal, and a strong supporting cast behind them. The Preds have risen to 12th in the NHL with an average of 2.75 goals per game.
"That's something you want to see come this time of year," Weber said. "When you get close to the playoffs you want to have three or four lines which can contribute for you. Because you know one line may get shut down in a playoff series, you're going to need other guys to step up. So it's good to see."
The goalie is back, too. Pekka Rinne was un-Rinne like in the opening half of the season -- taking heat really for the first time in his All-Star career -- to the point where people were questioning whether Carter Hutton should start more games.
Well, consider these numbers for Rinne since Feb. 18: 12-1-2 with a 1.85 goals-against average and .936 save percentage; only Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop has had a better GAA and save percentage during that span.
"He's been great," Weber said. "He's been the backbone of our team for how many years now. For him to take the heat that he did and not worry about it and just keep playing his game. ... And at the start of the year we were hanging him out to dry, it wasn't his fault, we were playing a little more loose and not quite as well defensively. We're doing better at that and he's doing his job to the best of his ability right now."
It's all clicking right now for the Preds. Just ask Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella, who had this response to reporters Saturday night after his team gave up 48 shots and lost 5-1 to Nashville: "Totally overwhelmed. Totally overwhelmed. That's all you need to know. I am not going to answer or dissect or talk about the game. It won't do anybody any good for me to go any further, and we were overwhelmed from the start of the game to the end."
Added a Western Conference coach: "Rinne is back to form. Ryan Johansen is a great fit. They're a well-balanced team."
The Preds can clinch a playoff spot with a regulation win over the visiting Colorado Avalanche on Monday night. Weber has been part of seven trips to the playoffs during his 11-season career in Nashville, and I asked him how this year's version of the squad compared as he readied himself for trip No. 8 to the postseason.
"That's always a tough question. It's tough to compare teams in the past," Weber said. "But I definitely have to say that I don't know if we've had this much young talent, this much youth having the ability to change games in the time I've been here; guys that can really just take over. We've seen that in the last couple of weeks, we need a big goal and those guys are stepping up and that's what you need in the playoffs, guys to step up in big moments."
Just don't be shocked if the Preds knock off a big boy or two in the West this spring. Their play over the past two months was your warning that this team was coming.