Forward depth helps Predators foster quick start to season

Veteran forwards like Eric Nystrom (right) have helped the offensive-minded Predators enjoy a 2-0-1 start to the season -- averaging 3.0 goals per game.

Christopher Hanewinckel

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — New coach, new forwards and a new system were all signed, sealed and delivered for the Predators to improve scoring.

But in a successful start to the season in which they earned five of six points (2-0-1 at home), it has been Predators holdovers delivering the goals. That’s all the way down to the gritty fourth line, where veterans Eric Nystrom and Paul Gaustad have found the net.

That’s fine with first-year coach Peter Laviolette, who figures his top lines will break loose sooner rather than later, considering they’re already generating shots and quality chances.

That includes scoring ace James Neal, who was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Penguins, along with free-agent acquisitions Derek Roy, Mike Rebeiro and Olli Jokinen.

Rebeiro scored his first Predators goal in Tuesday’s shootout loss to the Flames for his only point in three games.

Roy has three assists but no goals, while Neal and Jokinen haven’t scored a goal or assisted on one for no points. In the shootout, Neal, Roy and Jokinen were blanked by Flames goaltender Karri Ramo.

"We’ve only played three games," said Nystrom, the nine-year NHL veteran who scored a goal in the season-opening win over Ottawa (Oct. 9) and followed that Saturday with the game-winner in a victory over the Stars.

"Those guys are going to find their stride and find their offense," he added. "It’s good that we can help out in that time to help the team win a couple games. But we want to contribute offensively the whole year; but at the same time, we’re definitely defensive-minded guys.

"Once everybody gets clicking and really get their chemistry going and find the back of the net and confidence grows, we’ll be a lot better team."

With the Predators rolling four forward lines, Nystrom has flanked Gaustad, a 12-year veteran center, and mixed nicely on the fourth line the last two games with young forward Taylor Beck.

But the particular role of that line is to offer grit and defense, making scoring an early bonus.

"They have been good," Laviolette said of the fourth line. "And I’m glad to see them contribute and get some rewards for the team and for the effort. We hope to get a lot of people scoring. You never know who it is going to be.

"But I am more concerned with the way we play the game and how we play it and from that, hopefully, you will see results. We’ll have to score goals in order to be successful. It can be contributions from everybody, but it’s nice to see those guys picking up and collecting points to help our team win."

It’s way too early to be concerned about lack of scoring from the newcomers. They’re learning their way with new teammates in a new system. But scoring is the reason they’re Predators, especially Neal, whose 88 goals since the start of the 2011-12 season ranks tied for fifth in the NHL.

"You’ve got to keep shooting pucks," said Neal, who had only one shot on Tuesday after seven in the opener and four against the Stars. "I felt I had some good looks in the first two games. If I keep doing what I am doing, it will come. You just have to stay even keel. You can’t get too high or too low.

"It’s a long season. You stay in the game, and your bounces will come, as long as you just keep working for them."

Neal’s decreasing shots in three games coincide with the Predators having 37-20 and 33-18 advantages in shots on goal in the first two games, respectively, before being outshot 28-21 by the Flames.

"It’s a team thing," Gaustad said of the early-scoring distribution that also includes two goals by star defenseman Shea Weber. "There are going to be times when guys aren’t scoring and others have to pick it up. That’s the way hockey is. Guys have got to support each other.

"We’re rolling four lines. Everybody is contributing. That pushes the pace for us. Guys will start scoring if they keep shooting and find the right way. Things will happen."

Laviolette said before the season opened that it may take up to 15 games to get a feel for the proper chemistry and pairings among the forward lines. Meanwhile, the ice time between the four forward lines has been fairly equal.

Rebeiro has centered the first line with Neal and Gabriel Bourque flanking, while the second line has had Roy in the middle of Craig Smith, the Predators’ leading goal scorer last season, and young gun Filip Forsberg. The third line has had Colin Wilson centering Jokinen and Calle Jarnkrok.

The former first-round draft pick of the Capitals, the 20-year-old Forsberg has loads of offensive potential and could end up on the first line with Neal and Rebeiro.

"We have been able to roll four lines and at times chew up the clock because of a lead or because of a game that we are in and not feel like we have to press and do everything (and) something different with that regard," said Laviolette, whose team plays Friday at Winnipeg and Saturday at Chicago before returning home Tuesday to face the Coyotes.

"The guys, system-wise, have an understanding," he added. "We’re trying to get better at it, but the minutes have been fairly even at this point."

Standout goaltender Pekka Rinne has apparently returned to stellar ways after missing two-thirds of last season with an infection in a surgically repaired hip. He has a 1.62 goals against average and .924 save percentage.

The Predators expect to get veteran forwards Viktor Stalberg and Matt Cullen into the lineup soon. They were placed on injured reserve before the season with upper body injuries.

Team co-captain and veteran center Mike Fisher hopes for a late November return from an Achilles injury suffered during the offseason.