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Central: Road play will determine Preds' playoff presence

by Dan Rosen
At first, Nashville defenseman Shea Weber used the term "every other day" when discussing how frequently the Western Conference standings change.

Weber quickly corrected himself.

"Every day," he told

No kidding. Now imagine being right in the middle of it.

The Predators are thrilled to be in that spot, because it wasn't too long ago they weren't.

"It's the best part of the year, by far," the All-Star defenseman said. "Every game means so much and everything is under the microscope. It's hard not to at least check the scores. You can't control it, but it's definitely something that you take a look at."

Asked to identify the turning point of Nashville's season, Weber said it was right after the All-Star break, when the players came back aware of how much ground they needed to make up.

At the break, Nashville was 14th in the Western Conference. After Thursday's 3-2 defeat of San Jose, they were eighth, and entering Saturday's home game against Los Angeles, they are 9-2-4 in their last 15 games.

"Guys came out of (the All-Star break) refreshed and with a good mindset, and we knew what we had to accomplish coming out of there," Weber said. "We got on a role, especially on the road. That led to where we are right now."

If the Predators are going to make the playoffs, they're going to need more road success. Five of their final eight games are away from the Sommet Center, including two at Detroit. The Predators are 2-2-0 against the Wings this season, but lost 6-2 at Joe Louis Arena on Feb. 18. They are 14-18-4 on the road this season, but 5-3-2 in their last 10.

Nashville also plays at Columbus, Chicago and Minnesota. They host L.A., Columbus and Chicago.

"We know we have to win on the road if we want to make it to the playoffs," Weber said. "It's right there in front of us and we have to take care of business."

They might have to do it without their top two centers, Jason Arnott and David Legwand.

Arnott has been out for the last seven games with an upper-body injury, and Legwand could be out for anywhere from two games to two weeks depending on the severity of his facial injury after he was hit in the face by a puck in Wednesday's practice.

Cal O'Reilly was summoned from Milwaukee of the American Hockey League and took Legwand's place in the lineup Thursday against the Sharks.

"It definitely hurts to lose a player of that caliber," Weber said. "It's tough on a team, but we have guys that are capable of stepping up and playing bigger roles, and that's when guys get a chance. It's going to be exciting to see the guys that step up."

In the Nik of time -- It looks as if Joel Quenneville has made his difficult but long-awaited decision as to who will be in the net for the Blackhawks come playoff time. His man appears to be Nikolai Khabibulin, who won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay, ahead of Cristobal Huet.

Khabibulin has played in six of seven games since returning from a 12-game absence due to injury. Entering Friday's game against New Jersey he hadn't been spectacular (2-2-1, .862 save percentage), but Quenneville is hoping Khabibulin gets into a rhythm before the playoffs begin.

"Just prior to him getting hurt it looked like he was going to get the ball and go," Quenneville said. "He has positioned himself to get this opportunity and we're going to rely on him here to get the net."

Huet had his chance to win the job when Khabibulin was sidelined, but he went 2-4-1 with a .878 save percentage in his last seven starts. He was relieved by Antti Niemi after giving up four goals on 22 shots through two periods against Pittsburgh on Feb. 27.

Unsung group -- You probably have heard all the reasons why Columbus is in a playoff position right now.

They have a 20-year-old star in the making in net. Rick Nash has matured and bought into Ken Hitchcock's system. Antoine Vermette has solidified the center position. Kristian Huselius was a missing piece. Youngsters like Jakub Voracek have developed.

All true, but what about the Jackets' defensemen? Hitchcock hasn't forgotten about them. They have just as much to do with the team's success as anyone else.

Fedor Tyutin, Mike Commodore and Jan Hejda have been solid all season. Marc Methot and Kris Russell have developed nice chemistry as the third pair. And original Blue Jacket Rostislav Klesla has returned from injury to solidify the entire group.

Columbus entered Friday's games seventh in the League in goals-against (2.66 per game), and Mason has a League-high 10 shutouts. The Jackets' penalty kill was 13th at 81.8 percent.

"I think right now we are the sum of parts back there," Hitchcock said. "We support each other and are hard to play against."

Klesla's return after an 11-game absence could be the key going forward. Hitchcock was worried Tyutin (23:26 of ice time per night), Commodore (22:49) and Hejda (22:20) were "on the cusp" of being overworked. Injuries have limited Klesla to 32 games this season, but he averages 21:14 per night.

"Him coming back in has given us four defensemen and all can move the puck pretty well and it makes the group of four hard to play against," Hitchcock said. "It has allowed us not to burn out some of our guys like we were doing before. When Klesla came in and started to take some of these big minutes, it really helped us a lot."

What about Pav? -- That's what Detroit coach Mike Babcock expects to be asking when the hockey writers submit their votes for the Hart Trophy as the League's MVP.

Babcock told that "no one is going to vote for" Pavel Datsyuk because "his team is too good." Babcock, though, has his own opinions on the matter.

"He's the best forward in the game right now, bar none," the coach said.

Babcock later said he doesn't want to "get on a soap box about Pavel. We want to win one trophy." If he had his choice, however, Babcock said he would take Datsyuk over any other forward in the NHL, and yes, that includes the three guys you all are thinking of.

Think Pittsburgh and Washington.

"He plays in all the situations. He makes everyone around him better," Babcock said of Datsyuk. "He's better in his own zone by far than any of the three perceived top players in the League. It's not even close. Plus, he can flat out stickhandle in a phone booth."

A quick crunch of the numbers sees that entering Friday's action Datsyuk's 89 points were fourth-best in the NHL -- behind Pittsburgh Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin -- and his 59 assists and plus-35 rating were third. His 84 takeaways were second, and his 57.0-percent success rate on faceoffs is fourth among the 43 players to take at least 1,000 draws (Datsyuk has taken 1,050).

"The best player in the game up front is Pavel Datsyuk," Babcock reiterated.

Hope for Kariya -- According to Blues President John Davidson, who spoke to Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, there is a chance Paul Kariya could return to the lineup if the Blues manage to squeeze into the playoffs.

Entering Friday's action they were one point out of eighth. Kariya had 15 points in only 11 games this season, but he has been out since Nov. 5. He had surgery on his left hip Jan. 5 and an operation on his right hip Feb. 10.

"He adds five to 10 minutes to his skating each day and he's pushing hard," Davidson told Rutherford. "He knows his body. He's still targeting the end of the season, the playoffs … we'll see. If he keeps progressing, then he's going to have to see a doctor and get cleared. But it's all real good.

"It would be a nice surprise, but you never know."

He said it -- We asked Detroit coach Mike Babcock to submit his vote for the Calder Trophy between the perceived top two candidates for the award, Columbus goalie Steve Mason and Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne.

"Mason, because one guy (Rinne) is 26 and the other guy (Mason) is 20," Babcock said. "One guy is a bona fide walk-in-the-door superstar. The other guy is a good, good goalie. I could be wrong because we have seen goalies come and leave, but this Mason kid isn't going anywhere. He's the real deal. He's legit. So is Nashville's guy, though. He's big and pushes and battles. It might be time to move divisions."

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