NHL's road warriors back home thinking playoffs
The Nashville Predators have been the NHL's road warriors this season, and now they finally get to kick back and relax at home.
Just not too much.
The Predators finished their longest road trip of the season going into the All-Star break with six games in 11 days, and the team that has played more on the road than anyone else in the NHL now gets to finish with 21 of 32 on home ice. Nashville played only three games at home in January, yet went 9-4-0, including 3-3-0 on that road trip.
Predators forward Steve Sullivan said Monday the stretch run is starting with players looking toward spring and the playoffs.
''When you looked at the schedule in September and October and you looked at the month of January, it was a little overwhelming knowing you had that long road trip and it was kind of a make it or break it for us,'' Sullivan said. ''Everyone was talking about that's going to be the trip that's going to make or break the Preds, and we came out of it with flying colors. So I think now we're looking forward to the rest of the schedule with a lot more home games, some stronger opponents.''
The Predators have played well in their 30 games away from home, ranking first in the West and third in the NHL with 17 road wins.
Now they're back home where fan support has been surging. They already have seven sellouts through the first 20 home games, and Nashville traditionally plays well at home. The Predators are 11-4-5 at home this season, and their 140 home wins since 2005-06 are tied for fourth-best in the NHL behind San Jose, Anaheim and Vancouver - a trio of teams that have played four more home games already this season.
Nashville forward Wade Belak said being home poses challenges, like having to take care of family duties that were neglected while on the road.
''Maybe takes away from hockey. You kind of lose your distraction there and focus,'' he said.
That's where the home fans, considered among the NHL's loudest, can help.
''We've had great crowds here at home, and I think we're looking forward to playing before our home crowd because we've been away from home the whole month of January, I guess,'' Belak said. ''It's been crazy.''
Their last home game was Jan. 15 in a shootout victory over Chicago.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz is working to make sure his Predators don't get too comfortable being able to sleep in their own beds, not with four games remaining against the Central Division-leading Detroit Red Wings (66 points).
''The only thing we have guaranteed is we have last change, at home. Other than that you're not guaranteed anything else. You're not guaranteed certain points, you're not guaranteed anything. Our guys understand the situation,'' Trotz said.
The Predators still need to heal up several players. Sullivan has a chronic groin injury, while the rest of the wounded include defenseman Francis Bouillon (concussion), center Matthew Lombardi (concussion), center Cal O'Reilly (broken fibula) and forward Marek Svatos (knee).
Sullivan has a chronic groin injury he hurt Dec. 23 and hasn't played since Dec. 26. He returned to the ice Monday, but said the team's success with players on the roster and those brought up from Milwaukee in the AHL allows him not to rush back.
But the Predators are thinking of trying to improve their seeding rather than scrambling just to make the playoffs as they did a year ago in finishing with the No. 8 seed.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne was named the NHL's third star for January after tying for first in the league with eight wins. He also ranked first in goals-against average among goalies playing at least five games (1.71) and second in save percentage (9.47) while starting 11 of Nashville's 13 games.
Rinne gave up just one goal in five games, and he is a key reason the Predators rank third in the NHL on the penalty kill at 85.2 percent.
''Hopefully, we can string together some wins,'' Belak said. ''We're going to need them because it's a tight division and a tight Western Conference.''