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Neal could return for Predators against Blue Jackets

by Craig Merz

PREDATORS (21-8-2) at BLUE JACKETS (14-15-3)


COLUMBUS -- The Nashville Predators could have right wing James Neal back in the lineup when they play the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Monday.

Neal was ill and did not travel with the Predators for their 6-5 win at the Minnesota Wild on Saturday to start a three-game trip. He flew Sunday to Columbus and participated in the morning skate Monday.

"I feel better. It's good to be back on the ice," he said. "Friday I wasn't feeling well. Saturday it got better but I wasn't feeling good enough to play Saturday."

Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said he believes Neal will be able to play against the Blue Jackets. Neal skated for much of the practice on a line with center Calle Jarnkrok and Taylor Beck on left wing.

Neal is second on Nashville with 11 goals and has 19 points in his first season after being acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins on June 27. He has nine goals and 14 points against the Blue Jackets in his career.

For the Blue Jackets, it's one of the rare times in their injury-plagued season that they have fewer roster concerns than their opponent. Coach Todd Richards expects to use the same lineup he used in a 3-2 shootout win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday.

The Blue Jackets are 8-0-1 since losing 2-1 at Nashville on Nov. 29 and have played beyond regulation in the past six games. The NHL record is seven straight, by the Edmonton Oilers in 2004 and the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2009.

"It's been an interesting streak, but obviously we'd like to put a team away in 60 minutes, not 65 or a shootout," Columbus left wing Matt Calvert said.

Although most of the games recently have ended well for the Blue Jackets, they've started slow, being outshot a combined 30-8 in the past two first periods against Chicago and the Washington Capitals.

"Whether it's fatigue from the stretch of games or not being ready to go, that's when we've given up the majority of shots," Calvert said. "We've been taking a lot of penalties in the first period. Sometimes you don't get into a rhythm."

Fortunately for Columbus, goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is 8-0-1 with a 2.01 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage in December.

"When Bobrovsky's on his game, they're tough to beat," Neal said.

Columbus will look to tighten the play around Bobrovsky after allowing at least 34 shots in six of the past nine games.

"He gets better as the game goes and thrives in those situations," Columbus defenseman Kevin Connauton said. "We don't want to keep putting him in those situations, but it's comforting having him in the net."

Here are the probable lineups:


Filip Forsberg - Mike Ribeiro - Craig Smith

Colin Wilson - Mike Fisher - Matt Cullen

Eric Nystrom - Olli Jokinen - Gabriel Bourque

Taylor Beck - Calle Jarnkrok - James Neal

Roman Josi - Shea Weber

Mattias Ekholm - Ryan Ellis

Victor Bartley - Seth Jones

Pekka Rinne

Carter Hutton

Scratched: Viktor Stalberg, Derek Roy

Injured: Paul Gaustad (lower body), Anton Volchenkov (lower body)


Matt Calvert - Brandon Dubinsky - Cam Atkinson

Nick Foligno - Ryan Johansen - Jeremy Morin

Corey Tropp - Alexander Wennberg - Jack Skille

Adam Cracknell - Michael Chaput - Jared Boll

Jack Johnson - David Savard

Kevin Connauton - James Wisniewski

Fedor Tyutin - Dalton Prout

Sergei Bobrovsky

Curtis McElhinney

Scratched: Jordan Leopold, Cody Goloubef, Sean Collins

Injured: Nathan Horton (back), Ryan Murray (knee), Mark Letestu (groin), Artem Anisimov (torn triceps), Scott Hartnell (broken finger), Brian Gibbons (knee), Boone Jenner (back)

Status report: If Neal can't play, Roy would play in his spot.

Who's hot: The Predators, 29th on the power play at 12.0 percent, have scored with the man-advantage in three of the past four games. … Columbus has killed 12 straight shorthanded situations. … Ribeiro has four goals and six assists in his past nine games. … Connauton has three goals in the past six games.

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