There’s no better time than now for Blues to close gap on Predators

The Blues would be wise to make their move on Nashville while star goalie Pekka Rinne is out.

Jasen Vinlove/Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — The Blues won’t get a better opportunity to catch Nashville than the next two weeks.

It starts tonight at 7 p.m. on FOX Sports Midwest with the fifth and final game of the season series between the two rivals, a chance for St. Louis to avenge three one-goal losses and close to within three points of the Central Division lead. Coach Ken Hitchcock says the Predators have been the better team as they scored all three game-winning goals in the final period.

"Obviously, they’re deep on defense, they’re deep up front," Hitchcock says. "I think that’s why they win games at the end. They win games because they’re the fresher team."

Another key to success this season has been Pekka Rinne, the leading contender for the Vezina Trophy as hockey’s top goaltender. He went down with a knee injury Jan. 13, and it’s not clear his replacement can maintain Nashville’s red-hot pace.

Carter Hutton’s 2.87 goals-against average and .895 save percentage don’t exactly inspire confidence, and he didn’t earn his first win until the Predators held off Washington 4-3 on Jan. 16. They’ve managed to pick up five points in four games since losing Rinne in a 5-1 win over Vancouver, but it’s not the same team that won or went to overtime in all nine games after Christmas.

"I think if you look at their success last year versus this year, missing Pekka Rinne is a huge, huge issue for them and something that we have to take advantage of," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk says. "We’re not going to get these opportunities very often and they’re still built really well."

Hitchcock and forward T.J. Oshie say the game plan won’t change with Hutton in net, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put an extra emphasis on testing him whenever possible. Nashville has given up three goals six times in Hutton’s last seven starts, compared with nine times in 37 starts for Rinne.

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The Predators played their 47th game of the season Tuesday to pull even with the Blues, and they’re the only two teams to play nine games in the next 15 days. Most and perhaps all of those will be without Rinne, whose latest update set the timetable for his return at one to three weeks as of Tuesday.

Second-year goaltender Marek Mazanec will almost certainly have to make his first start of the season, while the Blues have a considerably stronger backup option in 24-year-old Jake Allen. Nashville even faces tougher competition, although it will benefit from six home games compared with just four for St. Louis.

Nothing comes easy in the Central Division, and goaltender Brian Elliott expects it to be a tight race all the way to the finish. He’s not convinced Rinne’s absence will make much of a difference, and players such as captain David Backes aren’t keen to look further ahead than the next game or spend time studying the standings.

"A glance as you walk by but trying to analyze who’s playing who, when, where, that’s all stuff out of our control," Backes says. "Start worrying about things you can’t control and you make yourself go nuts, so it’s about winning games, stringing them together, count them all up when 82 is done and that’s our focus."

As usual, the captain’s example would be a good one to follow as the Blues try to pick up where they left off before the break, when they went 7-0-1 since a loss at Anaheim on Jan. 2. But it doesn’t change the fact Nashville looks as vulnerable as it’s likely to be all season.

Chicago and Winnipeg can’t be ignored, either, since the Blackhawks are tied with St. Louis and the Jets sit just two points back. If the Predators continue to stumble behind a goaltender who is only 2-4-3 this season, those standings could look considerably different by Valentine’s Day.

A Blues win Thursday night would be the perfect way to set the wheels in motion.

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter at @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.