By Teresa M. Walker (AP Sports Writer)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators are back at work feeling a little healthier after an eight-day break for their bye and ready to put together all the pieces for the stretch run to the postseason.
The Predators practiced Thursday before catching a plane to Florida for a game Friday night against the Panthers to kick off the final 30 games. They practiced without forward Austin Watson who was suspended Tuesday indefinitely without pay as part of the NHL’s substance abuse program.
Center Kyle Turris has been on injured reserve since Jan. 1, but the Predators find themselves possibly as healthy as they’ve been in a couple months.
”The guys that were dinged up, it gives them a chance to even recuperate more and for their bodies to catch up,” coach Peter Laviolette said. ”The guys that are still out of the lineup, that’s days that are spent where we’re not playing games and where they might be getting close to return.”
The defending Presidents’ Trophy winners returned to work Thursday with 64 points, two back of Winnipeg in the Central Division with the Jets having two games in hand over Nashville. The Predators, who topped the overall league standings early this season, currently are fifth overall with three Western Conference teams ahead of them in Calgary (71), Winnipeg and San Jose (65).
All-Star goalie Pekka Rinne sees a need to build momentum by being consistent.
”Obviously, now it’s the clutch time of the season, and you want to be playing well,” Rinne said. ”I feel like those are the things that we’ve had at times, and then we’ve lost them at times. So I think those are the areas that we got to focus on and try to build that confidence that we had in the beginning of the season.
Nashville knows one area that should be easy to make a big jump: the man advantage. The Predators went into their bye week having failed to score in 25 straight power plays and haven’t scored a power-play goal since going 1 of 4 with the man advantage on Jan. 9 in a 4-3 win at Chicago. They rank 29th in the NHL converting just 13.1 percent after being 12th in the league last season with a 21.3 percent success rate.
Having key pieces back should help that production.
Center Ryan Johansen, who missed two of the final three games before the All-Star Game because of a suspension for high-sticking, is on target for his best scoring season in Nashville with a team-high 43 points. Forwards Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg also missed time with injuries and Forsberg has seven points in nine games back while Arvidsson has 11 points in 12 games since returning from a broken thumb .
Defenseman P.K. Subban, another piece of the power-play, has played only 33 games because of his own injury that kept him out until Dec. 27.
Laviolette said they work on the power play as much as possible at every practice. He liked what he saw in a 2-1 win in Vegas just before the break.
Putting a unit back together I thought that Johansen unit with Forsberg and Arvidsson they really moved it around,” Laviolette said. ”They could’ve scored. They hit the post once or twice, a couple more rolled through the crease. There was a lot to like about it, and now we need to find some results with it.”
The schedule also could help. The Predators will play nine games in Nashville during February after just four in January. Subban, whose digital series debuted during the break along with his own TV special after the All-Star Skills competition last week, said he was ready to get back to his old job.
”We want to start the second half the right way just like everybody else does,” Subban said. ”The standings are close pretty much in every division, every conference. I think how guys start definitely after the break is definitely going to be a big difference.”
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