Predators close out homestand against Sabres

If Saturday night was any indication, Eeli Tolvanen is ready for his second try at the NHL.

The 19-year old Tolvanen, who looked overmatched in three games late last season, was called up Saturday morning from Milwaukee of the AHL due to another wave of injuries and illness that left the Nashville Predators without three of their top six forwards for a game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

All Tolvanen did was pot his first NHL goal and add an assist in a four-goal first period that lifted Nashville to a 5-2 win, enabling it to regain sole possession of first place in the Central Division and the Western Conference.

Tolvanen and the Predators will try to close out a five-game homestand with a victory Monday night when they meet the Buffalo Sabres at Bridgestone Arena.

With Filip Forsberg (broken hand) and Nick Bonino (illness) added to a growing injury list that includes defenseman P.K. Subban, right winger Viktor Arvidsson and center Kyle Turris, Nashville’s once-formidable depth is being stretched to its limits.

The performance of Tolvanen, whose goal came on a wicked backhander to the top right corner, can only give the Predators hope and belief he might be ready to make the contribution they’ve believed he can since picking him in the first round of the 2017 draft.

“I thought he moved through the game really well,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. “When he gets those opportunities in front of the net like he did tonight, it shows the talent he has to put the puck in the net. I thought the way he moved up and down the ice was great.”

There was talk that when the Predators assigned Tolvanen to the AHL, he might return to the KHL. But Tolvanen took his nightly shifts in Milwaukee, scoring four goals and seven assists in 21 games, and averaging more than two shots per game.

Tolvanen said his time in Milwaukee also helped him defensively.

“I felt like I was more comfortable with the game system and all the guys there and the coaching staff,” he said. “I think it’s helped me a lot with my defensive game and just being more comfortable out there.”

While Nashville (18-8-1) is hoping to finish its homestand at 3-2-0, Buffalo (17-7-3) is aiming to get back into the win column to close out a three-game road trip. After Tampa Bay ended the Sabres’ 10-game winning streak Thursday night with a 5-4 verdict, Florida dumped them 3-2 Friday night in overtime.

Still, it’s been quite a turnaround for Buffalo, which was the worst team in the NHL in 2017-18. A third of the way through this season, it’s on pace for 111 points and is challenging Tampa Bay and Toronto for the Atlantic Division lead.

“You talk about every team being ready. They know about the streak now,” said Sabres coach Phil Housley, a former assistant under Laviolette in Nashville. “They see where we are in the standings and we’re going to get everybody’s best game.”

Former Predators backup goalie Carter Hutton (12-7-1, 2.63 goals-against average, .917 save percentage) is expected to oppose Pekka Rinne (11-4-1, 1.86, .934) in net.