Preds within shouting distance of playoffs at Olympic break

Defenseman Shea Weber (25 points in 27 games) and goalie Carter Hutton (13-9-4 as a starter) have helped the Predators collect 24 points since Dec. 28.

f the Nashville Predators had known before the season started that No. 1 goalie Pekka Rinne would miss four months, and yet they’d sit only four points out of a playoff spot at the Olympic break, they probably would take it.

One of the franchise’s true building blocks (along with defenseman Shea Weber), Rinne led the league in wins in 2011-12 and has twice been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy — given to the NHL’s top goaltender, as voted by team general managers.

With Rinne out indefinitely, the goaltending duties have mostly fallen to a duo that entered the season with one combined game of NHL experience. Only Nashville and Edmonton, the worst defensive team in the NHL and one that continues to search for a solution in goal, have used five goalies this season, underlining the inconsistent and somewhat fluid nature of the Predators’ situation.

Rookie Marek Mazanec helped out a good deal, earning honors as NHL Rookie Of The Month for November. Mostly, though, Carter Hutton has shouldered the load and done an admirable job. He is 13-9-4 with a 2.87 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage.

Before the Predators’ final game before the break against Anaheim, coach Barry Trotz discussed Hutton’s mental evolution from backup to No. 1 goalie. In that transformation, Trotz credited his netminder for being the hardest worker on the team, along with praising goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who is something of a guru at that position.

"I think (Hutton) has done a lot of work with Mitch Korn and then it’s easy being a backup goalie," Trotz said. "As Mitch would say, ‘Anybody can be a backup goalie until you have to play’ and he’s got that sort of No. 1 mentality of feeling comfortable in the league. He had one NHL game under his belt before this year, and now you’re playing behind the youngest defense in the National Hockey League. So, that makes the transition a little harder.

"We haven’t scored like the Ducks (NHL’s third-highest-scoring team), so our margin of error is a little bit shorter. … I think there has been a lot of pressure but I think he has learned to deal with the — it used to be a little bit of tense nervousness, a lot of pressure; now it’s like ‘Bring it on, I can do this.’ That’s the mentality that you have to have and I think he’s got that."

It’s an open question as to when or if Rinne will return from an infection in the hip that was surgically repaired last offseason. After the Anaheim loss, Trotz said Rinne continues to ramp up his exercises in an effort to get back. Last Friday, posted a photo of Rinne, dressed in full pads, as he had been working out on the ice with Korn at the club’s practice facility, where practices are open to the public. The Predators still have not issued a timetable for his return.

Some have suggested the Predators could be a trade partner with the New Jersey Devils for 21-year veteran and future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur, who at 41 earns $5 million and has been inconsistent this season. The Predators might only make such a move out of desperation.

While Nashville does not rank among the league’s higher-scoring teams, the issue has largely dissipated over the past few months. Since Dec. 28, the Predators have averaged 2.81 goals per game, ranking them in the top 10 if they did it for the entire season. During that period, the Predators are 9-6-6.

If the Predators had hypothetically played at that clip all season, they would have 66 points and be in playoff position.

The scoring increase is largely a function of having the league’s No. 6 power play, which, in turn, has much to do with the production of Weber, who had 25 points in 27 games entering the break. At times, certain forwards like Mike Fisher and Craig Smith have gotten hot, as well.

The Predators are battling with multiple clubs for a Western Conference playoff spot. Vancouver, Phoenix, Winnipeg and Dallas — the current owner of the final wild-card spot in the West — are all in the hunt. Nashville might have to beat out all four teams to reach the postseason.

As such, the Preds will have to improve on that 9-6-6 trend by winning more games in overtime or shootouts.

The trading deadline, which comes only eight days after the season resumes, also could offer opportunities to improve the team. If Nashville could snag Islanders wing Thomas Vanek, the Sabres’ Matt Moulson or Calgary Flames’ Mike Cammalleri, it could enhance their chances. It’s worth noting, though, each of the above assets will be in high demand.

Bottom line: Making the playoffs will be difficult but not impossible.

"I think there is going to be a race," Trotz said. "There are a number of teams, and I think it will be an absolute battle. I think it is going to fun hockey. I think it’s going to be like playoff hockey."