The Nashville Predators could head into the All-Star break sharing the league’s best record, but Pekka Rinne’s absence could make staying near the top quite challenging.
The Montreal Canadiens, meanwhile, are hoping top goaltender Carey Price returns before the break.
Nashville tries to avoid its first set of back-to-back defeats Tuesday night when it visits Montreal.
The fact that the Predators (30-10-4) would end the first half tied for the most points in the NHL if they win this game and Anaheim loses in regulation Wednesday against Calgary comes as quite a surprise. They’ve never even won a division title and missed the playoffs the last two seasons.
"They know what they’ve put into it to get to this point. We’ve got to continue to press," first-year coach Peter Laviolette told the NHL’s official website. "It’s probably going to get harder if anything, so we’ve got to be ready to play. That being said, given the choice to be at the top of standings or at the bottom of the standings, everybody in the room would rather be at the top."
Nashville earned a season-high fifth consecutive win Friday against Washington in its first game without Rinne, who is expected to miss at least the next two to four weeks because of a sprained knee. The Predators couldn’t keep that run or a 10-game point streak going the next night, falling 5-2 in Detroit.
"We want to finish strong. We’ve got a few days off to rest and regroup from (Saturday) then get at it in Montreal," forward Mike Fisher said. "It should be a fun game. It’s a good atmosphere, and we’ll be ready."
It may be an intimidating atmosphere for inexperienced backup Carter Hutton or recent call-up Marek Mazanec. Hutton was pulled after allowing three goals on four shots Saturday, falling to 1-4-2 with a 3.17 goals-against average as the starter. The Predators gave up eight goals during the weekend, two more than in their previous four contests combined with Rinne in net.
Nashville yielded a league-low 2.17 goals per game before his injury. Rinne tops the NHL with 29 victories and is among the league leaders with a 1.96 GAA.
Montreal (28-13-3) is also among the NHL’s best defensive teams with 2.36 goals allowed per game, and Price was 23-10-2 with a 2.19 GAA before missing the past two contests with an upper-body injury. The Canadiens fell 4-1 in Ottawa on Thursday but topped the visiting New York Islanders 6-4 on Saturday.
Tomas Plekanec had two goals and two assists as Montreal avoided a season-high third consecutive home defeat and matched its best scoring output of the season.
"We wanted to come back with a big effort," forward Dale Weise said. "We wanted to send a message to the league that this is a tough place to play."
Nashville has found the Bell Centre accommodating recently, winning three of its last four visits and each of the past two. Rinne, though, outdueled Price in those back-to-back victories, the most recent a 2-1 win Oct. 19, 2013.
The Predators are 3-0-2 in their last five versus the Canadiens but blew a three-goal lead in the latest matchup and lost 4-3 on David Desharnais’ overtime goal Dec. 21, 2013. An injured Rinne missed that game after allowing a combined three goals in the prior four meetings, and it was Price’s first win in four starts against Nashville.
He reportedly told the estimated 17,000 fans at Sunday’s practice that he would return soon. Price participated in Monday’s practice, and Montreal sent goaltender Joey MacDonald back to the minors Sunday.
"I feel really good, but we’ll see in the morning (Tuesday)," said Price, who hopes to play in Sunday’s All-Star game. "Luckily, it wasn’t a serious injury, and I’ll be okay."
Max Pacioretty has seven of his team-best 21 goals and three assists during a career high-tying seven-game point streak. He’s scored in each of his last two games against Nashville.
Fisher is riding a six-game point streak and has nine goals and seven assists in his last 17. He has one point over his past seven games against Montreal.