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Laviolette: Early struggles, injuries made Predators ‘stronger as a team’

After a second-round playoff appearance and trading for P.K. Subban several weeks later last offseason, expectations for the Nashville Predators were perhaps the highest they’ve ever been entering a new season.

And then they went out and started with an underwhelming 2-5-1 record through October.

When you think of those players that have been so critical to Nashville’s success in this run to the Stanley Cup Final versus the Penguins, most of them struggled mightily in that first month.

From PHT on Oct. 31:

Ryan Johansen isn’t helping much either. The 24-year-old center had three assists in the Preds’ first game, but just one in the next seven. He has no goals and has yet to register a point at even strength. In fact, he hasn’t even been on the ice for a Nashville goal at five-on-five!

Filip Forsberg doesn’t have a goal either, and James Neal has but one.

Meanwhile, the top pairing of P.K. Subban and Roman Josi are minus-7 and minus-6, respectively, with the possession stats to match.

And then there’s Pekka Rinne, who’s 1-4-1 with a .906 save percentage. Not helping.

Sounds bad.

But, looking back on that first month, head coach Peter Laviolette preached patience as the Predators worked to get out of that early hole.

“There was a lot of talk coming out of October about what was wrong and that we weren’t right,” said Laviolette on Sunday. “I kept saying internally, ‘That’s OK, it’s OK to struggle a little bit, to have to work to figure out who we are as a team, who we are as a group, who is driving the bus, where the seats are, and to have to figure a way out of something.’”

In November, the Predators turned around and went 9-3-2 that month.

“We were building something at that point,” said Laviolette.

“Even though December and some of January we were struggling a little bit, we were dealing with a lot of injuries. Not that that is an excuse, because every team has to deal with them. We were trying to move through that.”

For all their early problems, the Predators finished the season among the better puck possession teams in the league and qualified for a wild card spot in the West.

All of those aforementioned players that struggled in October eventually saw their fortunes turn around. Johansen had 61 points as their No. 1 center, Forsberg had another 30-plus goal season and Viktor Arvidsson (he wasn’t mentioned) emerged on that top line with his own 31-goal, 61-point season.

A pending restricted free agent, Arvidsson is surely in line for a substantial raise from the $650,000 average annual value attached to his current deal.

Oh, and the Predators’ defense, with Subban and Josi, has become arguably the best blue line group in the league. Rinne? He has a .941 save percentage in these playoffs, as Nashville rolled over the Blackhawks, Blues and Ducks to get into the championship series.

From sitting 29th in the standings at the end of October, the Predators are now four wins away from a Stanley Cup. The challenge only gets more difficult, especially against a talented and deep Penguins team.

The Predators won’t have Ryan Johansen. But it looks like Mike Fisher could return for Game 1 on Monday. In the absence of both players last round against Anaheim, the Predators were lifted in part by the performance of Colton Sissons, who had a hat trick in the series clincher.

“I think when we got to the last third of the season, our guys had been through a lot,” said Laviolette. “Things had moved around a little bit. We became stronger as a team internally.

“More than anything, I think we were built in order to get to this point.”

The Buzzer: Spezza bounces back after healthy scratch; another injury for Predators

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Player Of The Night: Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars

On Monday night the Dallas Star made veteran forward Jason Spezza a healthy scratch as he was mired in a lengthy goal-scoring drought. The Stars wanted to see more from him, and they knew he could provide more.

When he stepped back into the lineup on Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings he did exactly that by scoring a pair of goals in the Stars’ 4-2 win.

Even though Spezza had been struggling to put points on the board he was still doing an excellent job when it came to driving possession and generating shots, as well as the fact the team was outscoring its opponents when he was on the ice. His ice-time has been cut significantly this season, but he was doing enough to suggest that it was only a matter of time until he got back into the goal column.

He snapped out of it in a big way on Tuesday.

Another big injury for Nashville

The Nashville Predators are already playing without two of their top forwards with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson sidelined.

They lost another one on Tuesday night in their 1-0 win over the Vegas Golden Knights when Ryan Johanson had to leave the game after taking a high hit from William Carrier.

Johanson left the game and did not return. There was no penalty called on the play.

Predators coach Peter Laviolette had no update on Johansen after the game and said they were given an explanation that it was a clean hit.

The Predators ended up winning the game 1-0 thanks to a goal from Kevin Fiala and 43 saves from Jusse Saros.

Highlight Of The Night

Not much in the way of highlight reel plays tonight, but here is a big goal from Vince Dunn to give the St. Louis Blues a 2-1 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Factoid Of The Night

A big milestone for New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist as he picks up his 20th win of the season.

Scores

New Jersey Devils 4, New York Islanders 1

New York Rangers 5, Philadelphia Flyers 1

Dallas Stars 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

St. Louis Blues 2, Toronto Maple Leafs 1

Nashville Predators 1, Vegas Golden Knights 0

San Jose Sharks 3, Arizona Coyotes 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Report: Blackhawks concerned Crawford could miss remainder of season

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Here is some less than encouraging news for the Chicago Blackhawks.

According to a report from Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun Times on Tuesday night, there is some growing concern within the Blackhawks organization that starting goaltender Corey Crawford could miss the remainder of the season due to experiencing vertigo-like symptoms for the second time in his career.

Crawford has been sidelined since before Christmas due to an upper-body injury, but the team has been quiet on specifics other than to say publicly that they expect him to return this season.

Over the past few years Crawford has become one of the NHL’s top goalies and when he has been on the ice this season has been absolutely stellar for the Blackhawks. Given the current state of their defense and the rate that they give up shots he has become one of the team’s most important players and the one that seems to drive their success more than any other.

[Related: Corey Crawford has become the Blackhawks’ most important player]

In his absence the team has leaned on Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass. Both have played about as well as could have been expected, but they aren’t Crawford and there is a noticeable drop in play at the position when he is not in there.

In 26 games this season Crawford is 16-9-2 with a .929 save percentage.

As of Tuesday night the Blackhawks are on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture, sitting three points back of the Minnesota Wild. They also have the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche sitting between them.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Rick Nash snaps out of slump, powers Rangers to huge win

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The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are two of the teams in the middle of the free-for-all that is the Eastern Conference playoff race that had five teams separated by just three points heading into Tuesday night.

Both teams had been rolling in opposite directions over the past week with the Flyers having won four in a row and five of their past six, while the Rangers were riding a three-game losing skid and had lost four out of five.

Their past two losses coming out of the bye week were especially ugly, losing to the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins (two other teams they are competing with) by a combined score of 12-4.

Both the Rangers’ and Flyers’ streaks came to an end in their game on Tuesday with the Rangers picking up a huge 5-1 win.

Rick Nash was the big star for the Rangers on Tuesday with a pair of goals, including a breakaway goal in the first period to tie the game at one after the Rangers gave up an early goal. It was a big performance for Nash because he had been mired in a brutal slump that had seen him go 12 consecutive games without a goal. He also had just one assist during that stretch. That slump has contributed to a down year offensively that has him on track for one of the least productive seasons of his career.

But he came through in a big way on Tuesday to help give the Rangers two huge points and move them three points ahead of the Flyers. The Flyers still have one game in hand while the two teams will still play three more games the rest of the season.

The Rangers’ win on Tuesday, combined with the Islanders’ 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils, moves the Rangers back into the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference for the time being.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Predators place forward Viktor Arvidsson on injured reserve

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Nashville Predators have placed forward Viktor Arvidsson on injured reserve with a lower-body injury and recalled forward Frederick Gaudreau from the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals.

The Predators made the move Tuesday afternoon.

Arvidsson was helped off the ice Monday during practice, and The Tennessean reports he tested himself during Tuesday morning’s skate.

The forward ranks third on the Predators with 13 goals and fourth with 27 points. The Predators already have Filip Forsberg on injured reserve with an upper-body injury.

Gaudreau has played 18 games with the Predators with three assists. He had 14 points in 21 games with the Admirals this season.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey