ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild are each coming off wins to begin stretches of three games in four days against Central Division opponents. It just so happens that two of those three games are against each other.
Friday night’s game at Xcel Energy Center is the first of a home-and-home set between the two division rivals, with Saturday’s rematch moving to Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
The Predators (22-9-5) are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and arrive in St. Paul as the Central Division leaders after leapfrogging St. Louis with a 2-1 road win over the Blues on Wednesday.
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Pekka Rinne stopped 29 of 30 shots as the Predators ended a three-game winless skid to take a one-point lead over the Blues with 49 points.
“You don’t want to get stuck in those streaks,” Rinne told the team’s website. “It can be really hard to get out of those.”
Nashville dropped the first meeting of the season against the Wild (19-15-3), when Minnesota scored four times in the final seven minutes to turn a 4-2 deficit into a 6-4 win. Thirteen of the last 27 contests between the two teams have been decided by just one goal.
“It’s a tough division, and it’s hard such a hard League,” Predators defenseman Roman Josi told the team’s website. “It’s hard to win games, so we’re definitely pleased with being in the top, but it’s so tight.
“You can’t really look at the standings too much, you just have to focus on the next game … and we know that, so we’re going to keep working and keep getting better.”
Minnesota gained sole possession of fifth place in the Central Division with Wednesday’s 4-2 home win over the Dallas Stars. The Wild’s 41 points has them two behind the Stars for fourth place in the division.
The win came in coach Bruce Boudreau’s 800th NHL game as a head coach. In his 11th season, Boudreau owns a record of 477-232-91. It comes after a stretch that saw the Wild drop four of five games to fall farther back in the division race.
“This week is a big challenge for us,” Wild goaltender Alex Stalock said. “It’s the second half, we gotta get going.”
Stalock is 3-4-0 with a 2.46 goals-against average, a .924 save percentage and one shutout in his seven starts in place of the injured Devan Dubnyk.
“I’ve always had a lot of confidence in (Stalock 3/4,” Boudreau said. “Confidence has never weighed in decision-making in playing Alex.
“Right now, we’ve still got great confidence in Alex, and hopefully when (Dubnyk) comes back, he’s gonna play great and then we got two good goalies that maybe we go to a little bit more.”
After Dubnyk backed up Stalock against Dallas, Boudreau said on Thursday Dubnyk would start one of the two games against Nashville.
“It was kind of a first for me to have to miss some time. It wasn’t fun,” Dubnyk said. “But I’m glad it’s over now, and I’m excited to get back at it.”
Minnesota is 31-28-8 all-time against Nashville but 18-12-4 at home. With the return of the injured Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter and Dubnyk on the horizon, Friday’s game could go a long way toward building momentum for when the Wild return to full strength for the first time all season.
Parise was assigned to Iowa of the American Hockey League on Thursday morning for a conditioning stint and was expected to be in the lineup that night against the Rockford IceHogs. The game action will be a first of any sort for Parise this season.
“It’s a big week for us,” said Boudreau. “You’ve gotta make hay when the sun shines, and this is the opportunity. It’s going to be tough, but at the same time, the opportunity is there for us.”