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Central: Time running short on Preds' playoff hopes

by Dan Rosen
We'll preface this by saying this is being written prior to Nashville's game Friday night at Calgary, but it really shouldn't matter. 

One game, although never enough of a sample to prove a trend, should be enough for the Predators to understand how they need to play if they hope to climb into playoff position.

Big players have to play big. The power play has to be effective. A goalie has to step up. The team can never say die.

The Predators hit a home run Wednesday night in Vancouver, their first game following the All-Star break, with their 5-3 come-from-behind victory. They were paced by a goal from each of their top four forwards, including three on the power-play, and 24 saves by rookie Pekka Rinne, who gave up three goals early in the second period but kept the door shut the rest of the way.

The win snapped Nashville's three-game slide. Entering Friday, the Predators had won only seven games since a three-game winning streak from Dec. 1-6, and they were 14th in the Western Conference with 45 points.

"It's a huge win," Rinne said after the game. "We had meetings after the first half, and the rest of the season after the All-Star break is a new beginning for us, a new start. We need a fresh start, we need to forget the last month and a half and just stick together."

Huge doesn't even begin to tell the story.

Jason Arnott, J.P. Dumont and Martin Erat all scored on the power play, which was ranked 29th at the All-Star break.

For Arnott, it was his third goal in 20 games. It was Dumont's ninth goal of the season and his second in four games after going 16 games without one. It also was only his second power-play goal of the season. It was Erat's third power-play goal of the season, but his first since Nov. 6. David Legwand had an empty-net goal and Joel Ward scored, too.

Rinne, hoping to establish himself as the team's No. 1 goalie, made plenty of quality saves.

About this time last season, Dan Ellis started to show signs of becoming the go-to goalie for coach Barry Trotz. He wound up dominating in March and leading Nashville to an improbable playoff berth.

Perhaps Rinne is about to embark on the same journey?

"We're just looking for one of them to get hot," Trotz said following Wednesday's game.

Rinne told during All-Star weekend in Montreal that he hasn't really thought about becoming the No. 1, but the competition with Ellis has brought out his best.

"When both guys are playing in games, it's game on," Rinne said. "He's a great guy and a great goalie partner. It's a good situation. We can both challenge each other and hopefully make each other better goalies."

All even -- Like many other coaches, St. Louis' Andy Murray looked at the All-Star break as the end of one season and the beginning of another.

Murray told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Wednesday that he was throwing out his players' combined minus-121 rating at the All-Star break. Granted, with Alexander Steen (Toronto), Carlo Colaiacovo (Toronto), B.J. Crombeen (Dallas), some of that minus was accumulated with other teams, but you get the picture.

"We eliminated the plus-minus up to this point and we're looking at the plus-minus for the remaining 36 games," Murray told the newspaper. "People can say plus-minus is a reflection of matchups. Possibly. It's a reflection of being on the ice for empty-net goals. Possibly. Is it a reflection of some guys being asked to do more than they're capable of? We wouldn't want to think that. Is it a lack of commitment to being a two-way player? We need to find that out. We will gauge their plus-minus in these last 36 games."

Sharp edge --
Patrick Sharp never has been coy about his desire to play on the wing instead of in the middle. Due to the Blackhawks' two-game slide prior to the All-Star break, Sharp got his wish as coach Joel Quenneville switched his lines to shake his club out of a mini-slump.

Sharp moved to the wing on a line with Jonathan Toews and Andrew Ladd to start Wednesday's game against Anaheim, a 3-2 win. By the time it was over, Patrick Kane had supplanted Ladd on the line, reuniting the threesome that was so good for the Hawks last season.

Sharp produced the secondary assist on Toews' game-winner at Anaheim and scored a goal in Thursday's 5-2 loss at Los Angeles. Sharp, who has a team-high 22 goals, had only two in 10 games before the All-Star break.

"You still have defensive responsibilities (at wing) and that's a priority," Sharp told the Chicago Tribune. "I can use my speed a little more, challenge defensemen one-on-one more. That's something I like to do."

Kane also broke his 12-game goal-less streak with a score against Anaheim. However, the Hawks, playing the second half of a back-to-back, couldn't keep up with the Kings the following night. Los Angeles was playing for the first time in eight days.

From the uh-oh department -- It's not Nicklas Lidstrom or Brian Rafalski, but losing Brad Stuart still is a big blow to Detroit's blue-line corps.

The stay-at-home defenseman was put on long-term injured reserve by the Wings on Thursday, meaning he'll have to miss at least 10 games. According to the team, Stuart suffered rib and back injuries Jan. 20 against Phoenix.

Stuart is the Wings' most physical defenseman and has been playing with Niklas Kronwall since arriving in Detroit last February. He has a goal, 7 assists and 119 hits through 45 games.

The good news is the Wings already had eight defensemen in Detroit, so they didn't need to summon one from Grand Rapids of the AHL.

Derek Meech, who played against the Blue Jackets in Lidstrom's place, has stuck around all season because of his ability to play forward when needed. Chris Chelios, who celebrated his 47th birthday Jan. 25, has played in both games since the break.

The bad news, according to Lidstrom, is the Wings have been slipping defensively and entered the weekend on 0-3-1 skid since an 8-0-1 stretch. They surrendered 19 goals during their season-high four-game winless streak after giving up only 16, with three shutouts, in their previous nine games.

Meanwhile, according to the Detroit News, Lidstrom has not ruled out needing elbow surgery after the season. He has been playing with tendinitis in his right elbow all season.

Yes, defense does matter -- You already know about the ridiculous play of Columbus rookie goalie Steve Mason. You're well aware that All-Star wing Rick Nash is having another fine season and had his first hat trick of the season Tuesday.

However, there's another huge -- and we can't stress that word enough -- reason why the Blue Jackets are right in the thick of a playoff race and playing like a team, as Nash puts it, "that has a chance to win every game."

Production from their defensive corps is way up this season compared to last.

The nine skaters who have played on the Jackets' blue line this season entering the weekend have combined for 18 goals, 67 assists and a plus-31 rating in 295 man games. The 10 defenders who played for Columbus last season combined for 23 goals, 71 assists and a paltry minus-12 rating in 435 man games.

For you math majors, entering Friday that would be 140 fewer man games by Columbus' defensemen this season but only five fewer goals and four fewer assists than they accumulated last season, and the plus-minus rating increased by 42.

It only makes sense that the Jackets' blue line has improved. They signed Mike Commodore (21 points, plus-13) and traded for Fedor Tyutin (20 points, even) and Christian Backman (4 points, plus-1) this past summer.

"I never had any thoughts of moving and I wanted to stay here, and that's what I told my agent (Marc Levine) from the start. I wanted to find a way to make it forever and we did."
-- Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg

Commodore, on pace for his best season ever, has proved to be a more-than-capable replacement for Ron Hainsey, who signed with Atlanta after posting 32 points and a minus-7 rating for the Jackets last season. Jan Hejda (10 points, plus-18) is as steady as ever, and Marc Methot (11 points, plus-8) is developing.

Rostislav Klesla (5 points, plus-3) would normally be a key contributor as well, but he's been limited to only 19 games due to a high ankle sprain and then a lower-body injury. He's been on injured reserve since Jan. 5.

This and that --
It appears, at least according to the Columbus Dispatch, that oft-injured winger Raffi Torres will play Saturday for the Blue Jackets. Knee and shoulder injuries have limited him to just 19 games this season. ... Nashville rookie defenseman Alexander Sulzer will remember his second NHL game probably as well or better than his first, and not for a good reason. Sulzer separated his shoulder Wednesday night and will be out 3-4 weeks, according to The Tennessean. ... The All-Star break was kind to Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith, who returned Wednesday in Anaheim after missing four straight games with concussion-like symptoms following a hard hit he took against Buffalo on Jan. 14. The Hawks were 1-2-1 without him. ... The Blackhawks won't play a home game until Valentine's Day. They are currently on an eight-game road trip, their longest of the season. They play only three home games in February, but close the season with 15 of their final 22 games at the United Center.

He said it -- "I never had any thoughts of moving and I wanted to stay here, and that's what I told my agent (Marc Levine) from the start. I wanted to find a way to make it forever and we did. I believe I still have 12 years left in me, and I don't want to play anywhere else. I also wanted to make sure these were the last negotiations taking place." -- Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg hours, after signing his new 12-year contract.

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