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Laviolette, leading Predators, still Adams favorite

by Jon Lane

With three-quarters of the 2014-15 season complete, NHL.com looks at some of the biggest storylines and award contenders.

Not even an injury to a Hart and Vezina Trophy contender could derail Peter Laviolette and the Nashville Predators.

Goalie Pekka Rinne was leading the NHL with 29 wins when he sustained a sprained knee Jan. 13, but the Predators held steady to maintain their place at the top of the Central Division. When Rinne was injured, the Predators led the Chicago Blackhawks by two points and the St. Louis Blues by five points. When he returned Feb. 5, they were two points ahead of the Blues and eight in front of the Blackhawks.

At the quarter pole of the season, Nashville leads the race for the Presidents' Trophy and Laviolette remains the favorite to win the Jack Adams Award given to the NHL's top coach.

Last season, Nashville came within three points of the second Western Conference wild-card spot for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and finished tied for 18th with 2.61 goals per game. Laviolette has transformed the Predators into an up-tempo, high-octane attack. They are averaging 2.91 goals, sixth in the NHL, and are third in shots on goal per game (32.1), up from 23rd a season ago. Long known as a stingy defensive team, Nashville has actually improved in that area too, giving up 2.34 goals per game (third in the League) compared to 2.84 last season (23rd in the League).

"He's a good coach; we all know that," Philadelphia Flyers coach Craig Berube told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "He's brought offensive life to that team -- and not lost the defensive side of it."

The Predators were the first team in the NHL to reach 40 wins, own the League's best record on home ice (26-5-1), and have lost three straight games in regulation once all season.

Individual players are flourishing under Laviolette, including Calder Trophy candidate Filip Forsberg (21 goals, 52 points) and reclamation project Mike Ribeiro (12 goals, 52 points). Colin Wilson has already set career highs in goals, assists and points to go with a plus-22 rating.

"I think our guys have done a really good job of keeping their eye on the ball and living day to day," Laviolette said. "We've played hard in a lot of games this year. I've been really happy with the consistency of the effort and the consistency of the preparation to go out and play."

FINALISTS

Jack Capuano, New York Islanders -- Improvement was expected from the Islanders -- 26th in the League last season -- after general manager Garth Snow significantly upgraded the roster in the offseason. But 41 wins, tied for first in the League, wasn't on anybody's radar.

The Islanders reached 40 wins in a season for the first time since 2006-07, the last full season they reached the playoffs. They've dominated from start to finish during their final season at Nassau Coliseum, and it's time Capuano received credit. New York has survived without top-line wing Kyle Okposo, out since Jan. 26 with what ESPN reported is a detached retina. The Islanders already surpassed 79 points, the highest total they had in any of their past three full seasons, have not had a losing streak longer than three games, and are 19-4-1 against Metropolitan Division opponents.

Led by Capuano, the Islanders are poised to make their second postseason appearance since 2007 and have the chips in place to advance deep into the tournament.

"The biggest thing has been the consistency," Capuano said. "You're going to have games in an 82-game schedule where you're not going to be at your best. We know that. But this year we've been consistent in how we've played. The big thing for me is making sure we manage the puck. When we manage the puck correctly, good things happen for our hockey team."

Bob Hartley, Calgary Flames -- Though the Flames are fighting for a spot in the playoffs, when you consider they've gone five seasons without a postseason appearance and their 13th-place finish in the West a season ago, it's been a thrilling season in Calgary, where Hartley and the Flames have shattered expectations. The resilient Flames are second in third-period goals (77) and are one of two teams (Anaheim Ducks) with at least 10 wins when trailing after the second period.

The battle to reach the postseason got a lot harder with the loss of top defenseman Mark Giordano to a torn biceps tendon, but the fact that Calgary even is in the hunt is a testament to Hartley, who won the Stanley Cup as Colorado Avalanche coach in 2000-01 and has taken the Flames to heights unforeseen this season.

"We're very fortunate as a coaching staff," Hartley said. "I've said this many times, we have a bunch of athletes who care. They want to work. They're on the job. We're progressing as a group, and I think that we can count on any individual that we put into the lineup."

Also in the mix: Barry Trotz, Washington Capitals; Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets; Gerard Gallant, Florida Panthers

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