Things have changed rapidly in Nashville.
It was less than two months ago that the Predators looked to be a team going nowhere in a lost and forgettable season. They seemed destined to be sellers at the trade deadline, we were seriously questioning if it was time for a massive rebuild, and they were 10 points out of a playoff spot in seventh place in the Central Division.
Their playoff chances did not just seem slim. They seemed finished.
That is no longer the case.
Thanks to their 1-0 win over the Stars on Saturday night, the Predators now find themselves in a position where they control the playoff race for that fourth spot. They have a three-point lead over the Stars and have two upcoming games against a Columbus Blue Jackets team that has become one of the league’s worst. Even if they only win two of their remaining four games, Dallas would need to go 4-1-0 in its remaining five games to pass them.
It is a good position to be in considering where they were in the middle of March.
The biggest change since then: Goalie Juuse Saros has put the team on his back and is almost single handedly carrying to a playoff spot.
That is not an exaggeration, either. This season has become the Saros show in Nashville.
The interesting thing about Nashville’s struggles a year ago, and even through the first half of this season, is that they were a very good 5-on-5 team. They consistently outscored their opponents when play was even, they were on the plus side of shot attempts and scoring chances, and there was reason to believe they should have been better than their record.
The biggest problems were goaltending and lousy special teams. While the power play remains a significant issue, goaltending could always play a big role in improving the penalty kill. Recently, it has. Significantly so with the Predators owning the sixth best penalty killing mark since the middle of March.
It was around that time that Saros took control of the net and started playing out of his mind.
The numbers are stunning.
Over his past 20 games Saros has posted a 14-5-1 record with a .945 all situations save percentage. That is tops in the NHL. No other goalie with at least 10 appearances during that stretch has a mark higher than .939. He also has a .952 mark during even-strength situations. That is also tops in the league.
This run has not only put Nashville right back into the thick of the playoff race, it has also put Saros in the middle of the Vezina Trophy discussion and, perhaps even maybe the MVP discussion. He is not going to beat Connor McDavid, but he is going to appear on at least a few ballots for the way he has played in the second half of the season.
Especially when you consider the injury situation Nashville has dealt with on its roster.
During this second half surge the Predators have played a significant number of games without some of their top players.
Ryan Ellis has only played in 11 out of 24 games since March 14. Filip Forsberg and Matt Duchene have only played in seven each since then. Eeli Tolvanen has missed seven games and Luke Kunin has missed six. Roman Josi has missed four games.
That is a lot of high-end talent out of the lineup for the most important stretch of the Predators’ season, and they have not missed a beat.
The play of Saros is the biggest factor for that.
Ever since he became the Predators’ top backup during the 2016-17 season, and then started to gradually get more playing time in becoming the starter, he has been one of the league’s most productive goalies. There have been 51 goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games over the past five seasons, and none of them have a higher save percentage than Saros’ mark of .921 in that time. He is currently in a four-way tie with Andrei Vasilevskiy, Antti Raanta, and Ben Bishop for that top spot. His even-strength mark of .927 is also in the top-five of the league.
His play this season is finally starting to get him some recognition, and that is only going to increase if he carries this Predators team to the playoffs.