MONTREAL - After two years out of the NHL playoffs, there is new optimism among the Nashville Predators.
A stunning turnaround aided by a coaching change, the addition of veteran forwards James Neal and Mike Ribeiro and the emergence of 20-year-old forward Filip Forsberg have put Nashville in first place in the Central Division going into the all-star break.
Now they believe they've got enough pieces to keep up their strong play through the second half of the regular season and do some damage in the playoffs.
"Absolutely," veteran centre Mike Fisher said Tuesday. "We really believe in this group.
"We believe we're a top team in this league and we are. We've shown it thus far. We're really confident in the group we have, that we can win any night against other top teams."
The Predators had not lost twice in a row this season going into a game Tuesday night against the Canadiens in Montreal, where they were without star goalie Pekka Rinne for a third game due to an injury expected to last three weeks.
Backed by Rinne and an impressive defence group led by Shea Weber, the Predators are the NHL's stingiest team, allowing only 2.25 goals per game. But Nashville has been known as a tight defensive side in recent years.
The surprise is that they are tied for fifth in goals scored per game at 3.0.
Part of that stems from the decision last summer to let the conservative Barry Trotz go after coaching the team through its first 15 NHL campaigns and bring in a more attack-minded Peter Laviolette.
Trotz is now performing wonders in making the Washington Capitals a winning, two-way club, while Laviolette will also be a coach of the year candidate for doing much the same in Nashville.
"It's good for both sides," said Weber. "You see the success they're having (in Washington) and that we're having.
"There was a different feel coming into training camp this year with a new face and I think the guys have responded very well."
The second part of the season will determine if the Predators are for real, but it looks like it so far.
They certainly have the goaltending with Rinne, considered one of the best in the world.
With Weber, they have the big No. 1 blue-liner every team wishes it had, and he is backed by a group that can defend and move the puck. Among them is emerging talent Seth Jones, the fourth pick in the 2013 draft.
Only a few months ago, they didn't appear to have much up front, but then Forsberg turned into a nearly point-per-game player and a strong two-way player on the top line with veteran Mike Ribeiro, who so far has shown a new commitment to discipline after being bought out by Arizona due to behavioural problems.
"He's been an excellent addition to our team," Laviolette said of Ribeiro, who is on pace for his first 70-point campaign since 2010-11. "Terrific in the room, terrific teammate, terrific on-ice play."
Forsberg, playing his first full NHL campaign, was acquired from Washington in March 2013 for Martin Erat and Michael Latta in what is looking to be a spectacular steal for Nashville.
Fisher centres James Neal, a one-time 40-goal scorer picked up in a trade with Pittsburgh in June, and Colin Wilson, who is having a breakout season and will soon top his career high of 35 points.
Veteran Olli Jokinen, signed from Winnipeg, is playing on the fourth line. Another reclamation project, defenceman Anton Volchenkov, brings his stay at home style to the third defence pair and being dumped by New Jersey.
Fisher likes the team's chances.
"With the goaltending we have, and look at our back end: everyone can handle the puck and skate," he said. "And you look at the mix, the young guys, the leadership, energy, the way we play.
"We're all excited about what we can do. It's a tough league and the playoffs are tough, but we feel we've got a lot of pieces and character and we can be successful."
The Predators have won only two playoff series in their history, the last against Detroit in 2012.
The optimism now stems from adding some offence to a team known for tight defence. That comes from Laviolette.
"I'd say we're more aggressive," said Fisher. "We want to be hungry for pucks, to forecheck really hard.
"The way our defence can move the puck helps us offensively. And defensively, we want to be hard to play against. He wants us to play both ends. He wants us to make plays and be creative, but be responsible."
It has worked so far, but Weber, the captain, knows there is a lot of hockey still be played.
"I was on this team a while back when we were in first place for a while too," he said. "We've had good teams since I've been in Nashville.
"It's just been tough the last couple of years. There's still a lot of season left and we have to keep it up."