COLUMBUS -- The Nashville Predators were sluggish early, but a quick burst of offense in the second period and another strong effort from Pekka Rinne kept their recent string of success going.
Nashville scored twice in 123 seconds and Rinne made 38 saves Thursday night to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-0 at Nationwide Arena.
"It has been going well and as a team I think we are getting stronger and stronger," Rinne said. "Even though it seemed like the Blue Jackets were sharp and played a good game. They had a lot of shots but we still managed our game well. That's the strength that we've been going to -- our routine is higher and we are getting more consistent at everything."
The Predators have now won six of seven and nine of their last 11. Their 58 points would put them in at least second place in each of the NHL's other five divisions (pending Ottawa's result in San Jose later Thursday night), but it is only good for fourth in the Central.
They have also only moved up two spots in the Western Conference, from eighth to sixth, but the key takeaway from this run has been separation from the dreaded ninth position. After a Dec. 26 loss to Detroit, the Predators were in a tenuous tie for ninth in the West, but after this win, Nashville is now seven points clear of current ninth-place occupiers Minnesota.
"We could say, 'Oh, it is frustrating,' but actually it's not," Trotz said. "I hope our whole division keeps winning. They're forcing us to play a high level and we're pulling away -- we're not really looking back, we're looking forward. It is actually a blessing in disguise for us. We're not worried about just making the playoffs -- we want to win our division, and you're going to have to play at a high level to win this division."
The Blue Jackets had the better of play in the first period, but Rinne stopped all 13 shots he faced. Nashville pushed back in the second period and grabbed a two-goal advantage.
Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin sent a D-to-D pass to his left after a faceoff in the neutral zone, but there was only one problem -- partner Nikita Nikitin wasn't there. Nashville forward Sergei Kostitsyn tracked down the puck and led the Predators on a 2-on-1.
Kostitsyn connected with Martin Erat, and the Predators were up 1-0 at 11:08 of the middle period. It was Erat's 11th goal of the season.
The Blue Jackets were clearly trying to get as much traffic in front of Rinne as possible in this contest, but it cost them on the shift after Erat's goal. Derek Dorsett was called for goaltender interference, and the Predators wasted no time taking advantage.
Roman Josi started a tic-tac-toe passing play that led to the second goal. From Josi at the left point to Erat on the right wing to Mike Fisher at the left post the puck went, and Fisher ended up with his ninth goal of the season at 13:11.
"They bumped him a lot," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said of his goaltender. "They took pucks [to the net] and conveniently fell on him or conveniently pushed someone on top of him. [Rinne] has dealt with that for a few years so it doesn't really throw him off."
Added Columbus center Derick Brassard: "They wait for you to turn the puck over and that's what they did. They score two quick goals, and if you don't put any guys in front of Rinne, you're not going to score."
The two points for Erat temporarily tied him with captain Shea Weber for the team lead with 32. Weber scored into an empty net with 31.8 seconds left to reclaim the team's scoring lead and seal this victory.
Nashville only controlled the play for about 10 or 12 minutes in this contest, but that was plenty with Rinne in command at the other end of the ice. He stopped three grade-A scoring chances from Columbus captain Rick Nash over the course of the night.
"It seems like [Nash] is always really strong against us," Rinne said. "As a goalie, you really enjoy those moments when you can play against one of the top forwards in the League. Any time he's on the ice, he's usually dangerous."
This was another frustrating night in a season full of them for Columbus. The Blue Jackets have played better since interim coach Todd Richards replaced Scott Arniel, but for the second time on this home stand they left Nationwide with nothing to show in a game against a top Western Conference team despite feeling like they played well.
If one of those great chances from the team's best player, Nash, didn't sum up the night, then one for Derick Brassard did in the third period. Brassard had five goals and 10 points in his previous 13 games, and had a golden opportunity to cut Nashville's lead in half midway through the final period.
There was a scramble in the crease, and Rinne was down on his stomach. The puck came to Brassard with nearly the entire net open, but as he wheeled and shot Kostitsym got a piece of his stick and the puck traveled harmlessly into the side of the prone Rinne.
"That was a key moment of the game," Brassard said. "We could have come back in the game there, but they made a good play."
Rinne is not having a Vezina Trophy-finalist kind of season like he had in 2010-11, but he's on a pretty good roll right now. He's 9-1 during this Nashville surge, and has allowed two goals or less in eight of the 10 contests.
His statistics for the season, once far off his 2010-11 campaign, are now starting to look more like people expected. Rinne is now ninth in the League in save percentage at .924 and 17th in goals against average at 2.44. He was in the 20s in both stats just a couple of weeks ago.
"Hopefully there's 19 other guys that have something to do with that, but he's been really good," Trotz said. "He's been tracking the puck really well. He's an elite goaltender and he likes to be busy."