Predators set sights on strong finish to season

Barry Trotz likes the improvements his Predators have made this

season – and he thinks his young team can get even better.

Nashville came out of the All Star break with the NHL’s best

record since Dec. 28 at 12-2-0. Fifth in the Western Conference,

only the Rangers (31), Boston (31) and Detroit (33) have more wins

than the Predators (30), who started the season as the NHL’s

youngest team and now are tied for second-youngest in the

league.

”This group is a very easy group to work with, good focus, good

energy, high commitment level,” Trotz said after a short practice

Monday. ”And they’re actually playing with a lot of joy, and

that’s key.”

Expectations are pretty high for a franchise that lost the

Western Conference semifinals in six games last season despite its

youthful roster. Playing in the Central Division has helped push

the Predators to play their best. Even though they trail Detroit

and St. Louis in the division, the Predators are 11-2-2 with the

best divisional record of any NHL team.

”It’s making us play some good hockey,” forward Mike Fisher

said. ”It’s so close, and we’re not far out of first place. We

really want to set our sights on that, and we’ve got a lot of

division games coming up, a lot of tough games, and we feel like we

can do it.”

As usual, the Predators are drawing much of their confidence

from goaltender Pekka Rinne. He was named the NHL’s second star of

the week Monday after two more wins pushed him to a career-best

nine-game winning streak. He has allowed two goals or less in each

of his last nine starts.

Trotz had hoped Rinne would play in the All-Star game to attract

some attention after being a Vezina Trophy finalist last season.

But the coach didn’t mind that his goalie got time off, saying

Rinne needs to be rested to help carry Nashville down the

stretch.

”He’s got a well-earned rest,” Trotz said. ”He looks

sharp.”

Rinne said the Predators needed a break after pushing hard to

finish strong going into the All-Star break. The Predators won four

straight, including a 3-1 win in Chicago that pushed them past the

Blackhawks in the West. Having recharged their batteries, he

believes they can pick up where they left off.

”I’m really excited,” Rinne said. ”I’m really looking forward

to going to these last 32 games.”

Trotz gave All-Star defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and

rookie Craig Smith the day off Monday, allowing them to fly

directly from Ottawa to Minnesota for Tuesday night’s game.

The biggest question for Nashville is whether Suter will be

signed to a long-term deal before reaching free agency July 1.

Suter talked in Ottawa about his pending free agency, and Trotz

said he was not concerned about the comments because he knows Suter

wants to be in Nashville.

Both Suter and Weber, the captain who will be a restricted free

agent this summer, want to see the Predators make a move to add

more offense to help them compete for a Stanley Cup. Trotz said

they could use some veteran experience before the Feb. 27 trade

deadline.

The Predators are getting balanced scoring, averaging 3.14 goals

per game during their winning stretch, and they are 12th in the

NHL, averaging 2.74 goals per game. Nine different Predators have

scored at least 10 goals.

That leaves Trotz focusing on the ice and trying to get the

Predators back to the playoffs.

”I don’t know how it’s going to play out, but this group has

that special feel to it and a really, really good, focused group,

and they’re young and they’re getting better. Where we are today

based on where we were after about five games into the start of the

season, I was quite concerned that we might not get our feet on the

ground,” Trotz said.

”But Peks allowed us to get our feet on the ground, and we’ve

gotten better and better. And I think we’re a really good hockey

team right now.”

Follow Teresa M. Walker on Twitter at

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