Banged-up Preds aim to stay afloat vs. high-flying Avs

With center Kyle Turris joining a lengthy list of key players on injured reserve before Sunday night’s game with Anaheim, the Nashville Predators needed someone to step up.

Enter Austin Watson.

In his sixth game since serving an 18-game suspension for domestic violence to open the season, Watson notched the first hat trick of his career to help Nashville maintain its place atop the Central Division and Western Conference with a 5-2 win.

Without Turris, Viktor Arvidsson and perhaps P.K. Subban, the Predators will try to pick up another two points on Tuesday night when they welcome the Colorado Avalanche to Bridgestone Arena for the second of a five-game homestand.

Watson and Ryan Hartman split time on the top line against the Ducks with Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg. Both provide grit and better skill than some might think, but clearly on Sunday night, Watson had the hot stick.

“I think it’s just a matter of getting back on the ice and getting his timing back,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. “He was in shape when he started but there’s something about the game and the way it moves and getting your game timing down from skating, reading the puck and handling the plays.

“We’ve been giving him more opportunity in regards to ice time, penalty kill and defensive zone starts when the game is on the line.”

For Watson, who normally plays on third and fourth lines whose roles are to keep opponents from scoring and occasionally create a “dirty” goal, the chance to play with creative players like Johansen and Forsberg was fun.

“It’s always nice to score goals and contribute,” Watson said. “As hockey players, that’s what we like doing. It’s a good change to play with Johansen and Forsberg, two gifted players.”

The Predators (17-6-1) have won six straight at home, dating back to an Oct. 27 loss to Edmonton, and own a five-point lead on Colorado and Minnesota in the division. They also own an even longer streak over the Avalanche (13-6-4).

Nashville has dumped Colorado in 11 straight regular season games, a streak that started in the last week of the 2015-16 season. The 11th win occurred on November 7 in Denver, where Colton Sissons notched a hat trick in a 4-1 verdict.

Pekka Rinne bagged 24 saves that night and also got help from his team’s video coaches. Two Avalanche goals were waved off via review when replay detected offsides.

Colorado is coming off a 3-2 home win Saturday night over Dallas, thanks to Mikko Rantanen’s second game-winner of the season off a rebound with less than two minutes remaining. Rantanen and center Nathan MacKinnon are 1-2 in the NHL in scoring with 38 and 35 points, respectively.

Add linemate Gabriel Landeskog’s 26 points to the mix, and you have the top-scoring line in the NHL with 39 goals and 60 assists through 23 games.

“They have been consistent all year,” said forward J.T. Compher. “It’s just finding a way to consistently support them. You know what you are going to get out of them every night.”