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Getting Erat going vital to Predators' playoff hopes

Monday, 03.25.2013 / 1:09 PM
John Manasso  - NHL.com Correspondent

NASHVILLE -- With one of his best and most consistent offensive performers over the last decade mired in the worst goal drought of his career, Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz decided to give right wing Martin Erat a pep talk during the team's morning skate on Thursday.

Trotz reminisced with Erat about the arc of where the two men -- and the franchise -- had come. Erat was a long-shot selection in the 1999 NHL Draft, as the Predators selected him in the seventh round, but over time he delivered on the promise he showed Nashville's scouts. Today, Erat ranks second in franchise history in games played (718), goals (163), assists (315) and points (478).

During that span, the expansion franchise has gone from one that ranked among the worst in the Western Conference, to one that scratched and clawed to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, to one of the best regular season teams in the League and a club capable of winning playoff rounds.

"They were hard, but they were fun," Trotz said of the franchise's early years.

Trotz said the goal of his impromptu chat was to get Erat, 31, "smiling again."

"He's put a lot of internal pressure on himself, so just trying to get his spirit out a little bit and that," Trotz said. "He's very proud in how he plays. He's gone through some struggles. Just want to get his joy back in his game. Sometimes you have to defrag and make it basic and all that. He piles on himself enough. He doesn't need the coach and everyone else piling on him.

"What I'm telling him is it's Game 1 for you. Just play. Just play with a smile on your face. Play with the energy and the enthusiasm for the game and everything he's stood for ever since he's been here. I was trying to lighten it up for him a little bit."

It worked.

"He told me just relax, play your game," Erat said on Friday. "That's what I tried to do yesterday and it helped me."

In a 5-3 win over Calgary on Thursday, Erat deflected Roman Josi's shot for his first goal in 21 games. Later in the period, he stole a pass and earned the primary assist on Mike Fisher's goal. He followed that up with two more assists in a 5-2 win over Columbus on Saturday.

With the sudden outburst, Erat now has 18 points, one off the team lead as the Predators, having won two in a row, are trying to get back in the playoff race. Compared to the previous two seasons, this one has proved a struggle for the Predators. They finished fifth in the West in 2010-11 and fourth last season, coasting to playoff berths, winning a round each time.

This season the Predators enter Sunday one point out of eighth, as they have been beset by difficulties, including injuries and players such as Erat not performing to their typical levels.

Leading scorer Colin Wilson has missed the last seven games with an upper-body injury and appears nowhere near returning. Patric Hornqvist, who has led the team in goals in two of the three previous seasons, has missed 18 games with two separate stints out of the lineup. Top faceoff man Paul Gaustad has missed 13 games and Hal Gill, a top penalty-killing defenseman, has missed 16 games.

Other key players who have had the relative fortune to stay healthy have underperformed. Sergei Kostitsyn, who led the team in goals and points in 2010-11, has two goals and nine assists, eighth on the team. Then there is Erat, who elected not to play in his native Czech during the lockout or anywhere else overseas -- a factor that might have contributed to his slow start.

Erat admits, as Trotz said, that he is his own harshest critic. But Erat said that that is what transformed him from the 191st pick in '99 to a player who has ranged between 49 and 58 points for each of the previous eight seasons.

"I'm always the hardest, probably, on myself," he said. "Try to do sometimes too much but that's my game. That's why I got to the NHL. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. You have to be hard on yourself if you want to accomplish anything."

Almost since the Predators acquired Mike Fisher from Ottawa in February 2011, he has centered Erat and Kostitsyn on what has proved to be the Predators' top line. Fisher has five goals in his last six games, but before that he totaled only four in the first 26 games.

For the Predators to make the playoffs for the eighth time in the last nine seasons, they need that line -- recently reunited -- to click. It's a fact Trotz acknowledged with the coaching maxim about the Predators' need for their best players to play their best.

Erat agreed.

"We have to take ownership of this team," he said.

In his pep talk with Erat, Trotz also discussed how this season has shaped up somewhat like 2003-04, the first time the Predators qualified for the playoffs. That year, Nashville did not get in until the 81st game of the season. The team was on a charter flight to Denver when news arrived that a competitor had lost, guaranteeing the Predators' berth.

"Maybe it's going to help the team," Erat said of this year's trying path. "We got a lot of young kids who are trying to make the NHL, and it's going to help them be experienced to get through those games and see how you play hard and get to [go to the] playoffs.

"My first couple of years, it was the same way. Now we're trying to build from it and trying to learn from it and see what's going to happen. We've got (16) games left and maybe we can be a dark horse in the playoffs."

Maybe, if the Predators' best players like Erat are their best.

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