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Central Division notebook

Slow starts have been problem for Predators

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The nearly 61 minutes the Nashville Predators played against the Calgary Flames on Tuesday were a summary of their season.

They got off to a slow start and trailed 3-1 after 20 minutes. They rallied in the second period to lead 5-4 after 40 minutes. A so-so third period resulted in a tie game, not good enough to win but not bad enough to lose. Then they left a point on the table, losing 6-5 in overtime.

The Predators, as they have for a good part of the season, had no trouble scoring, but they did have trouble keeping the puck out of the net. And the puck and winning goal again eluded them in overtime, when they have been outscored 6-1 this season.

Put it all together, and you've got an inconsistent team getting another average result.

But with 23 games remaining in the regular season, the Predators have 65 points, enough to have them holding the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference. They have a two-point lead on the Flames, who hold the second wild card, and a three-point cushion on the Los Angeles Kings.

"There are 20 teams that say they need to find consistency to make sure that down the stretch they qualify for the playoffs, push to enhance their position in the standings and give themselves the best chance to win the Stanley Cup," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. "We're no different."

The hard part for Laviolette and the Predators is there is not one area of the game that screams out, "'Fix this."

It seems like it should be the first period, when Nashville has been outscored 50-36. That minus-14 goal differential is 27th in the League, but Laviolette said it isn't a result of poor preparation, mentally or physically.

"I do not think that first-period readiness has been a problem," he said. "We have not addressed that."

He used the game Tuesday as an example.

Micheal Ferland gave Calgary a 1-0 lead 46 seconds into the game by fluttering a shot into the net after it changed direction by hitting Predators defenseman Roman Josi. The Predators tied it on P.K. Subban's goal at 9:20, but Mikael Backlund scored on a rebound 70 seconds later, and a Nashville turnover led to Ferland's second goal at 17:24.

Laviolette said the turnover bothered him, but beyond that, he didn't mind the period.

"I'm usually pretty honest about the way we play, if it's bad I'll say it's bad, but I thought that we were playing hard and nothing really bounced our way or went our way," he said.

The Predators have been dominant in the second period with a League-best plus-27 goal differential (73-46), but as Laviolette pointed out, it's not as if he goes into the dressing room after the first and flips over tables to wind up his team after the first.

He didn't do that Tuesday, but Nashville scored four straight goals in the final 9:10, including three from Filip Forsberg, to take a 5-4 lead into the third period.

Video: CGY@NSH: Forsberg erupts for three goals in 2nd

Backlund scored 10:50 into the third, and Flames defenseman Mark Giordano scored 43 seconds into overtime.

"I can't say why our second period is what it is and I can't say why our first period is what it is [this season]," Laviolette said. "Our guys were as ready to play in the first period as they were in the second [Tuesday] night. If anything, if I was going to nitpick the game, I thought that we sat back just a little bit in the third."

Here's the thing though: Nashville simply shouldn't be winning more just because of the way it can score.

The Predators, who are 10th in scoring (2.83 goals per game), have 31 goals in 10 games since the All-Star break, which should be good enough to rack up a lot of points. They have earned nine of 20 points in those games (4-5-1) because they've allowed 35 goals.

Go back to the nine games they played before the All-Star break, and the difference is obvious.

The Predators scored 25 goals in those nine games. They gave up 20. They were 7-1-1.

"Do we come in with a different system and a different game plan every game? No," Laviolette said. "Do we play better in some games? Yes. Do we execute better in some games? Yes. We're not trying to do anything differently."

Except to finish the season strong, they'll have to find a way to get better results in the first period so they don't have to press so hard in the second. They'll have to attack in the third. If the game goes to overtime, they'll have to win the opening faceoff and get possession.

Do all of it, and the results won't be average. Do all of it, and the Predators won't have any trouble holding on to their playoff spot.

"I think there's a lot of confidence in our room that we can be successful if we do the right things," Laviolette said, "but like those other 20 teams, consistency has to come in the final 23 games."

 

Chicago future in doubt for Scott Darling, Brian Campbell

It wouldn't be smart for Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman to say he thinks backup goalie Scott Darling could be a No. 1 in the NHL, because that would mean he might lose some leverage in potential negotiations to re-sign the Illinois native.

And make no mistake, Bowman wants to re-sign Darling, who can become an unrestricted free agent after the season. Darling is 14-5-2 with a 2.19 goals-against average and .928 save percentage in 24 games this season.

"He keeps improving," Bowman said. "We obviously are thrilled with his performance, and we want to keep him in Chicago. We have to see if that's possible when we get to the offseason. It's too early to tell on that front."

The Blackhawks re-signed goalie Jeff Glass, who is playing with Rockford in the American Hockey League, on Thursday, making them compliant for the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. They have to protect goalie Corey Crawford because he has a no-movement clause. Darling wouldn't be eligible to be on Chicago's protection list because of his pending status as an unrestricted free agent. 

Video: CHI@BUF: Darling robs Baptiste, keeps game scoreless

In addition to Darling, Bowman said he absolutely can see defenseman Brian Campbell back with the Blackhawks next season. Campbell, who has settled his family in the area, signed a one-year contract with Chicago on July 1.

Campbell, 37, likely would have to sign another one-year contract to remain with the Blackhawks.

"It's going to depend on what he wants," Bowman said of Campbell. "Obviously, he's playing a lower amount probably than he wanted, but I think it's not always about money, there is the peace of mind, the family aspect, he is settled in Chicago. I think he's played very well for us the last couple months."

Campbell has 15 points and is averaging 18:17 of ice time. He played 22:17 per game last season with the Florida Panthers and hasn't averaged less than 22 minutes per game in a season since 2006-07, when he averaged 21:53.

"In the beginning of the year, we had a lot of experimentation with pairings, and we had some new players with [Michal] Kempny, [Gustav] Forsling and Campbell, and we were trying to figure out what worked the best," Bowman said. "Now that we've sort of settled into roles, I think Brian is playing some of his best hockey.

"I do think he can continue to play. He's still got that mobility. We'll have to talk to him when the year ends and see where he is at, but he still has the talent to play even though he's getting older."

 

Stat pack

Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews has 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in his past 12 games. He had 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in his first 39 games. … The St. Louis Blues have allowed 16 goals in 10 games since Mike Yeo took over as coach; they are 7-3-0 in those games. The Blues allowed 39 goals in former coach Ken Hitchcock's last 10 games; they were 3-7-0 in those games. … Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine broke Ilya Kovalchuk's franchise record for goals in a rookie season by scoring twice against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. Laine has 30 goals. Kovalchuk scored 29 in 2001-02.

 

Games to watch

Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators (Feb. 23, 8 p.m. ET; SN360, SNP, FS-TN, ALT2, NHL.TV) -- Points are at a premium for the Predators, and they can't give away any in a game against the team that's last in the NHL standings.

St. Louis Blues at Chicago Blackhawks (Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV) -- A potential preview of a Western Conference First Round series. Chicago is five points out of first place but 12 points ahead of the Blues for second. St. Louis has a two-point lead on Nashville for third.

Los Angeles Kings at Minnesota Wild (Feb. 27, 8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV) -- This also could be a potential first-round series if the Kings can climb back into a playoff position. They are two points behind the Flames for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference and have a game in hand. The Wild lead the conference with 84 points.

Pittsburgh Penguins at Chicago Blackhawks (March 1, 8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV) -- Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. Phil Kessel. Kris Letang. Jonathan Toews. Patrick Kane. Artemi Panarin. Duncan Keith. A treat for hockey fans after the NHL Trade Deadline, and a game that some predict will be a preview of the Stanley Cup Final.

Nashville Predators at Montreal Canadiens (March 2, 7:30 p.m. ET; SN, RDS, FS-TN, NHL.TV) -- This will be Subban's first game in Montreal as the visitor. You can only imagine the hype and buzz this game will get in Montreal. Off the charts.

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