NASHVILLE – It's two games in and Predators coach Barry Trotz feels safe calling forward Alexander Radulov a game-breaker.
In his first home game in four years, Radulov did just that on Saturday, helping to break the ice in a tightly played, scoreless game, setting up Matt Halischuk's goal at 2:56 of the second period. On a 2-on-2, Radulov drew two defenders to himself and made a slick pass through Winnipeg's Mark Stuart in the neutral zone, sending Halischuk in alone. Halischuk blasted a 35-foot slap shot past Ondrej Pavelec for his 13th goal of the season.
The goal helped Nashville snap a two-game losing streak. Gabriel Bourque also scored, Pekka Rinne made 24 saves and Shea Weber added an empty-netter in as the Preds downed Winnipeg 3-1 at Bridgestone Arena.
Radulov, who played his first game on Thursday after returning from the KHL, has a goal and an assist in his first two games since returning to Nashville after four seasons in Russia.
"The play on Halischuk's goal, that was pretty sweet," Trotz said. "What can you say? He's got great vision, he's got great hands. Some of the things he did created a lot of chances and that's what Rad does, but he's still really good defensively, too. He manages the game way better than he did four years ago and that's the maturity of just time and understanding the game and I'm excited. I know the guys are excited as we go on here. Rads will continue to be more comfortable and do his thing so that was a real step forward for us in that he's getting in game shape."
Halischuk said the play created a lot of space for him.
"I'm sure when you got a guy like that coming with the puck, he definitely grabs a lot of attention," Halischuk said.
For his part, Radulov, a two-time KHL MVP, is trying to deflect attention away from himself and towards the team. Asked if he were pleased with his production despite still needing to adjust, Radulov, 25, said he was "trying not to focus on that."
"Playoffs are coming up and it doesn't matter who is going to score or get assists," he said after playing 20:29. "We need the whole team to work together and some other guys get to be hero today and that's fine for me and for everybody. So we just need to play our game and win some hockey games. That's it."
After adding four new players since Feb. 17, Trotz said he thought his team had struggled with its chemistry, particularly its bottom two lines. Nashville had gone 1-3-1 in its previous five entering Saturday and was outscored by a combined total of 11-4 in losing its past two. Those games were two of the more forgettable performances of the season for Rinne, who picked up his 40th win, tying him for the League lead.
"Last few games there's been a few things just going wrong for us and, obviously, myself, too, haven't been up to the level of play what I would like to," said Rinne, who was pulled Tuesday in a 6-3 home loss to Edmonton after allowing three goals on seven shots. "But tonight I thought we kept them to the outside for the most part. It's always easier to play when the other team gets shots from the outside."
Winnipeg coach Claude Noel agreed.
"You look at the game, we got shots, but very few quality shots, very few scoring chances," he said. "It was very little penetration inside the dots. Very few second and third opportunities and I thought they did a good job of keeping us to the outside. It was a tough night to get on the inside of anything."
The win helped Nashville stay one point behind Central Division rival Detroit for fourth in the Western Conference. The Red Wings, down 4-1 early on Saturday, rallied to beat Carolina 5-4.
The Jets lost for the third time in four games one night after a rousing 4-3 overtime win on Friday over Washington in which they rallied from a 3-0 deficit. Pavelec (25 saves) was spectacular at times in making his second start in two days for the Jets, who fell six points behind eighth-place Buffalo in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Jets return home Monday for a must-win game against seventh-place Ottawa.
"I don't know if we deserved to win or not," Pavelec said. "… Monday's another game we have to win and hopefully some teams lose points. We're still there, we're going to battle to the end of the season and see what happens."
Pavelec sounded somewhat fatalistic about the Jets' chances, acknowledging that they need help from other teams in the standings.
"It's pretty clear that we need help from other teams," Pavelec said. "It seems like everybody else is winning right now."
Winnipeg again got a goal from its fourth line – the same one that combined for three goals in Friday's win – as Tim Stapleton converted a pass down low from Spencer Machacek with 7:07 left in regulation. But Winnipeg's last chance to even the score ended, for all intents and purposes, when Dustin Byfuglien was forced to take a hooking call on Martin Erat who had the puck and was facing an empty net at 19:30. Weber scored his 15th, a power play empty-netter with 9.9 seconds left.
The first period ended scoreless with plenty of help from Pavelec. He made a point-blank save on Patric Hornqvist and a blocker save on Radulov's 15-foot wrist shot during a delayed penalty. Erat also hit the post.
Radulov helped to get the Preds on the board first and then they went up 2-0 on Gabriel Bourque's fifth goal of the season at 10:01. Andrei Kostitsyn passed from the left point to Nick Spaling high in the slot. Spaling turned and fired a pass to Bourque in front of the net and Bourque used his backhand to redirect the puck under Pavelec's pads. Kostitsyn has seven points in 12 games since Nashville acquired him from Montreal at the trading deadline.
Bourque, a rookie, has pleased the coaching staff. Something else he did impressed Trotz more than the goal. He blocked one of Byfuglien's powerful slap shots and needed help leaving the ice, but returned.
"Bourquie, there's stats and then there's substance in stats," Trotz said. "You look at the commitment on blocked shots by Bourquie at an important time, that's playoff commitment and that's why he's in the lineup and why he's moved ahead of some guys in the lineup."
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