NASHVILLE – Asked about the stiflingly few number of goals his team has yielded of late following Monday's 4-1 win against Columbus, Predators coach Barry Trotz hardly paused before answering.
"What's key? Thirty-five," he said, a reference to goaltender Pekka Rinne. "Thirty-five's key."
Rinne made 25 saves on Monday -- 15 of them in the second period -- to hold back a Blue Jackets' charge. The win was surging Nashville's third in a row and 11th in its last 13 games.
Rinne has started 12 of those games, posting an 11-1 mark while logging 729 minutes and yielding only 20 goals for a 1.65 goals against average. The 2011 Vezina Trophy finalist entered Monday with a .924 save percentage.
The 6-foot-5 Finn's 44 starts are tied for the League lead with Carolina's Cam Ward and he could start his 45th on Tuesday at Chicago – his last game before a well earned All-Star break and trip to south Florida.
Steve Mason did his part in the first period for Columbus, turning aside 11 of 12 shots, but then Rinne held serve in the second.
"Our goalie was good in the first, made some big saves to keep it a one-nothing game, keep us in it, at least," said Columbus interim coach Todd Richards, whose squad dropped its third straight and fell to 2-4-1 since he took over. "And then, absolutely, their goalie was great to keep it a 1-1 game. We had lots of opportunities to take a lead in the game and he ended up being a difference in that point of the game."
Getting two goals from Mike Fisher, who has four in his last six games, the Predators concluded the season series with a 5-0-1 record against the Blue Jackets. Since 2006-07, Nashville is 31-5-3 against Columbus.
Until Nov. 19's 4-3 overtime win against the Predators, the Blue Jackets had lost 17 straight at Bridgestone Arena to Nashville. A 6-5 win on Dec. 22, combined with Monday's, the Preds have won 19 of the last 20 in their building against their Ohio neighbor.
Nashville earned the eventual game-winner on a power play, as the teams traded too many men on the ice penalties in the second period. First, it was Nashville's turn at 16:20 and then Columbus' at 18:00. Mason stopped Shea Weber's trademark heavy slap shot from the left point, but Fisher poked in the rebound with 29 seconds left in the period.
Richards said the late goal was huge for momentum entering the third.
"Unfortunately with the rebound, that's what Weber one thing he does," Richards said. "He shoots the puck hard enough where it's difficult for goaltenders to control the rebound."
Nashville's second-ranked power play went 2-for-5 on the night.
"The main thing is we've been winning and different guys are stepping up every night," Fisher said. "It's been huge."
In a Nashville-dominated first period, Martin Erat picked off a Columbus pass in its defensive zone to get the Preds on the board first. Erat shoveled a pass to Fisher, who potted his 10th goal with a wrist shot after breaking in alone on Mason at 8:07. Nashville outshot Columbus 12-3 in the period.
Rick Nash tied the game on a partial breakaway at 6:14 of the second. With the 6-foot-4, 234-pound Weber draped on his back and a referee signaling for a delayed penalty, the 6-foot-4 Nash turned from the left boards with the puck towards the goal and put his long reach to work, steering the puck around Rinne. Antoine Vermette picked up the only assist – he intercepted a clearing pass -- on Nash's 17th goal.
Columbus had two power plays in the second period in which they could have taken a lead, but Rinne, as the saying goes, was Nashville's best penalty killer in foiling both. First, Erat went off for holding Vinny Prospal at 8:58. During that power play, Columbus defenseman Grant Clitsome lined up a slap shot from 25 feet away, but Rinne came across the crease and cut down the angle and devoured the rebound.
"Second period, we didn't feel we played well at all," Fisher said. "We turned too many pucks over and when we did Pekka played real well."
During the last 13 games, Nashville has been without some of its best defensemen. Weber, an All-Star, has missed three of those games and Ryan Suter, also an All-Star defenseman, also missed three. On Monday, veteran defenseman Francis Bouillon was out with an upper-body injury.
"All the pieces are going really well," Rinne said of the Preds' stellar team defense, "and power play has been really good and our penalty kill has been really good. Just defensively as a group, we're playing solid hockey. It's not only the defensemen. A lot of it is forwards, too. They come back, they play hard and they help us down there."
Matt Halischuk, a healthy scratch in the previous game to make room in the lineup for newly acquired Brandon Yip, scored his 11th at 7:37 of the third period. Ryan Ellis' pass down low hit an official, leading to a scrum in the slot. Halischuk wristed the loose puck past Mason for the goal.
Patric Hornqvist deflected Suter's point shot on a power play with 3:09 left in regulation for the final tally. It was Hornqvist's team-leading 14th.
Suter returned to the lineup on Monday after missing the previous three with an upper-body injury. He entered ranking second in the League in average time on ice at 26:30, but played only 6:21 in the first. He finished with 23:02 and was even.
"I was giving (defenseman Kevin Klein) a hard time because he wouldn't get off the ice," Suter quipped.
Lately, as long as Rinne is on the ice, the Preds seem to have it covered.