Nashville Predators couldn't have asked for a more impressive way to begin the second half of their season.
The Predators scored three times in the first period Tuesday night to cool off Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov and skated to a 4-1 win at the Pepsi Center.
In beating the Avalanche for the sixth consecutive time in the opener of a home-and-home series that resumes Thursday night in Nashville, the Predators moved from seventh place to sixth in the hotly-contested Western Conference with 50 points and remained five points off the lead in the Central Division.
The Predators have won five of their past six games and have posted an 11-4 record in their past 15 games.
"We had a couple games where we didn't play very well and we were able to stabilize things," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "We have a young team and as we go along this season we're becoming a little more consistent. When we're consistent, we're a better team and we don't play as poorly as we did at the start. We've had a lot of home games, too, and we've been pretty good at home."
Trotz doesn't put much stock in his team's recent dominance of the Avalanche and expects a difficult test in Thursday's rematch.
"I just think the next game is going to be a lot tougher than this game," he said. "This game was tough enough."
Predators goalie Pekka Rinne stopped 32 shots for his 21st win, second in the NHL to Detroit's Jimmy Howard, who has 24 victories. Rinne has won eight of 11 career decisions against the Avalanche.
"Whenever you play the Western teams, you always try and bring your best game and we have been doing a pretty good job against Colorado," Rinne said. "They have a good young team and every year they get better. We seem to match up pretty well against them, but I'm not saying it's easy."
The loss was the second in a row for the Avalanche but just the third in the past 12 games. Colorado remained in 10th place in the West with 47 points, but slipped to two points out of the eighth and final playoff position.
"It was a first-period game; they won the game in the first period," said Avalanche center Ryan O'Reilly, who cut the deficit to 3-1 with a power-play goal with 36 seconds left in the second period. "They put us in a big hole and to climb back out of it is a real tough thing to do. They're such a good grinding team. All the guys finish their checks and they make it hard. They collapse in their own zone pretty tight and it's tough to get pucks through."
When Nick Spaling converted Jordin Tootoo's pass into the slot at 4:31 of the first period, it ended Varlamov's shutout streak at 102 minutes, 57 seconds. Varlamov began the night with a four-game winning streak in which he turned aside 103 of 108 shots for a .954 save percentage.
Rookie defenseman Ryan Ellis, the 11th overall selection in the 2009 NHL Draft, scored from the right point on a power play at 7:41. Ellis, playing in his sixth NHL game, has scored power-play goals in two successive games.
The Predators made it 3-0 at 15:05 when Mike Fisher passed to a wide-open Martin Erat, who whistled a shot from the right faceoff dot that beat Varlamov to the short side.
"We came out well, we forechecked well, had good support off the puck and I thought we executed really well and got them on their heels," Trotz said. "We really won the game in the first period."
Avalanche players didn't disagree.
"The first 10 minutes we started really slow and they took it to us," Avalanche captain Milan Hejduk said. "I felt, at the end of the first and in the second period I thought we played pretty good hockey and created chances, but it's tough to play catch-up hockey. They're a pretty disciplined team and when they have the lead … the difference was the first 10-15 minutes."
The Avalanche played much better in the second period. Colorado outshot the Predators 18-6 and finally broke through when O'Reilly drove to the net after passing to Paul Stastny and deflected Stastny's shot behind Rinne.
It was just the third goal in 33 power-play chances covering parts of 12 games for the Avalanche. The Predators had killed 19 of 20 penalties in an eight-game stretch before O'Reilly's goal, which ended the Avalanche's scoreless drought at 101 minutes, 20 seconds.
"We did it to ourselves a little bit, but they did a good job," Trotz said. "They had a good push. I'm sure (Avalanche coach) Joe (Sacco) got them motivated in the second and they came out with a real good push. Pekka was really the key in the second period. He was the difference in the game for me."
The Predators ended any Avalanche hopes of a comeback with 4:26 remaining in the third period when Patric Hornqvist spun around in the slot and beat Varlamov high to the glove side.
"We had a lot of energy," Ellis said. "We came out hard and I think we might have surprised them a bit. They definitely got on us in the second and played a lot harder than we did. I think in the third we kind of evened it out."