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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: Kempe, Schwartz record hat tricks; Leafs honor Gord Downie

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Players of the night: Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues / Adrian Kempe, Los Angeles Kings

The Blues forward tallied his third career hat trick during a 5-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. Schwartz scored the game’s first two goals before completing his hat trick with a late empty-net goal to stave off a Chicago comeback.

Wednesday’s feat for Schwartz came three years to the day of his first career three-goal game.

Kempe, meanwhile, tallied his first NHL hat trick and finished with four points during LA’s 5-1 rout of the Montreal Canadiens. Two of his three goals were assisted by Mike Cammalleri, who also finished the night with four points.

Highlight of the night:

Eddie Olczyk returned to the NBC broadcast booth as he continues his battle against colon cancer. Olczyk, along with Doc Emrick, called the Blues-Blackhawks game from Scottrade Center Wednesday night.

MISC:

Auston Matthews recorded the 20th multi-point game of his career. He now has six goals and 10 points on the season.

Patrick Marleau became the 18th NHL player to reach the 1,500-game mark.

Jake Allen kept his shutout bid alive with this great stick save on Patrick Kane late:

-The Kings are off their best start in franchise history at 5-0-1. They’ve allowed only 10 goals against through six games.

Jeff Carter left the game in the first period and did not return after tangling with Jeff Petry. Afterward, Kings head coach John Stevens said the forward will miss some time.

-Finally, The Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie passed away from cancer at age 53 on Wednesday. The Maple Leafs paid tribute before their game against the Red Wings.

Factoid of the night:

Scores:

Maple Leafs 6, Red Wings 3

Blues 5, Blackhawks 2

Kings 5, Canadiens 1

Cammalleri, Kempe power Kings over Canadiens

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Adrian Kempe recorded his first career NHL hat trick and Mike Cammalleri added two goals as the Los Angeles Kings beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-1.

After Paul Byron opened the scoring for Montreal midway through the first period, the Kings responded with five unanswered goals to hand the Habs their sixth straight defeat.

Cammalleri, who inked a one-year deal over the summer to return to the Kings, had a hand in four of LA’s five goals. He started the scoring for the Kings in the first period by celebrating the Dodgers’ playoff run with his own special kind of baseball swing.

Kempe, who finished with four points as well, scored his three goals over a span of 10:50 in the third period to help the Kings to their best start in franchise history (5-0-1).

LA remains the only NHL team yet to lose in regulation this season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Jaden Schwartz’s hat trick leads Blues over Blackhawks

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Jaden Schwartz‘s third career hat trick helped power the St. Louis Blues over the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2 in a Central Division clash Wednesday night at Scottrade Center.

Schwartz’s eventful evening began with a goal 4:46 into the first period. It was nearly ended minutes later after a scary crash into the end boards following a scoring chance.

After missing some time, Schwartz returned in the second period and doubled the Blues’ lead with his fourth of a season, thanks to a great outlet pass from Allen.

As the Blues built up a 4-0 lead, the Blackhawks spoiled Allen’s shutout bid with a pair of late power play goals 80 seconds apart. The furious rally was stopped, however, and Schwartz capped off his hat trick with an empty netter to put the game out of reach.

St. Louis dominated the first two periods, outshooting the Blackhawks 26-8 as they built up their 2-0 lead. The Blackhawks’ power play failed them early in the game, missing out on five chances to capitalize with the extra man through 40 minutes.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Canadiens at Kings

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The Montreal Canadiens play their second game of a three-game west coast trip Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Kings.

It hasn’t been the best start for the Habs, who sit tied for last in the Eastern Conference with a 1-4-1 record. They’re winless since an opening night win over the Buffalo Sabres. On the other side of things, the Kings are the only NHL team that has yet to lose in regulation. Their 4-0-1 start puts them a point behind the Vegas Golden Knights, and their game in-hand gives them the opportunity to leap into first place in the Pacific Division with a victory.

You can check out tonight’s game on NBCSN (10:30 p.m. ET) or online via the live stream.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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