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Predators continue search for consistent offense

by John Manasso

The Nashville Predators' scoring issues, coach Barry Trotz said, are all relative.

"If you're giving up three and four goals a game and you're only scoring two, then scoring has to be better," he said. "If you're giving up one or two goals a game, then you don't need as many goals. It all depends on really where you're at.

"We need, I can say about the scoring, I need more from more guys up front."

Entering their game Tuesday at Bridgestone Arena against the Chicago Blackhawks, the NHL's highest scoring team at 3.64 goals per game, the Predators rank 22nd in the League in scoring at 2.33 goals per contest.

Underscoring just how much the season has proved to be one of feast or famine for the Predators, they are 16-3-2 when scoring more than one goal -- meaning that in 12 of their 33 games they have scored one goal or been shut out.

"It feels like I should have three times as many goals. Some breaks here and there, some odd-man breaks, and things like that, it hasn't gone in."
-- Nashville forward Viktor Stalberg

Presently, the only player on the Predators who projects to reach the 20-goal mark this season is center Mike Fisher, whose seven goals are tied for the team lead with right wing Patric Hornqvist and defenseman Shea Weber. (Hornqvist and Weber have played four more games than Fisher, so Fisher is scoring at a higher rate.)

Even at their modest scoring clip, the Predators have won three straight games, outscoring opponents by a combined 10-4 margin. During that productive stretch, the Predators have still lacked contributions from their top-nine forwards.

The fourth line chipped in four of the 10 goals and the defense added one. While the Predators' philosophy is to get contributions from everywhere, defense in particular, that's still only five goals from the top-nine forwards in three games.

Trotz refers to the fourth line of Paul Gaustad, who has a surprising five goals, Rich Clune and Matt Hendricks as the "Wagon Line."

"A good example is the last couple of games," Trotz said. "The 'Wagon Line,' as we call it, they've been high contributors. That doesn't mean the other guys haven't contributed. They can find other ways to contribute in the game, but we need more consistency from that group, say, the top-nine guys in terms of what we consider of the offense.

"Everybody from Colin Wilson to Craig Smith to Eric Nystrom to Matt Cullen to go all down the list -- they all could contribute a little bit more."

Of the group that Trotz mentioned, Smith has six goals as does Nystrom, whose career high is 16 goals. Wilson, the seventh pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, and Cullen, 37, signed to be a top-two line center, each have five.

"We're certainly a defensive-minded team and I think we've been known for that from the beginning of inauguration or whatever it was, '98," Wilson said, "So, yeah, you have to get those goals to win because we plan on shutting down teams but creating offense off that, obviously, has been a bit of a struggle."

While Wilson has created numerous chances for himself lately, he has had trouble finishing.

"I hate the whole 'getting a lot of chances,'" Wilson said. "I've got to bear down and get those. I mean, I need to score to help the team but, at the same time, at least I'm creating. If I was a guy that there was just nothing going on game-in-game out, then I'd be a little worried for myself, but the fact I'm getting them is just getting the mentality that I have to score, getting confident around the net."

Many players have underperformed, a situation that also occurred last season, which ended up dropping the Predators from a team that advanced to the second round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs to a team with one of the League's worst regular-season records in 2012-13.

One top performer last season was Gabriel Bourque, who scored 11 goals in 34 games, a pace for 27 goals over an 82-game season. This season, Bourque has four goals in 29 games and was a healthy scratch in Nashville's 3-2 win against the San Jose Sharks on Saturday.

Trotz said Bourque needs to be more consistent.

"He can be a little bit harder on the puck, he can be a little more detailed with the puck and then he can shoot the puck more," Trotz said. "One thing [Bourque has] always been is a fix-it guy. For us this year, he hasn't been. … We have to get him focused on two or three things so we're trying to do that."

Viktor Stalberg is another underperformer. Nashville awarded Stalberg a four-year, $12-million contract in the offseason and had high expectations for him. Stalberg injured his shoulder in training camp, missed time and then started slowly once he returned. He has struggled to adapt to Nashville's system after three years with the Blackhawks.

Stalberg has four goals in 29 games but two in his past five games, creating the hope maybe he is getting on track.

"It feels like I should have three times as many goals," Stalberg said on Saturday after converting a pretty wrist shot on a 2-on-1 situation. "Some breaks here and there, some odd-man breaks, and things like that, it hasn't gone in. One off the post last game, so it's nice to see one go in and hopefully I can build off that."

While the Predators don't necessarily expect to be a top scoring team, just a modest boost could make a major impact. Like Wilson said, they are an organization built around goaltending and defense. Just raising production to 2.67 goals per game could work wonders.

Such an average would accomplish a number of things. For one, it would rank 14th in the League. Second, Trotz has talked about trying to win two of every three games. Nashville is 14-0-1 when it scores three or more goals (and when scoring a power-play goal the Predators, whose power-play unit ranks ninth in the League, also are 13-0-1). Theoretically, if Nashville could post totals of three goals, three goals and two goals over every three games, they would win two of every three games.

To an extent, that has been the formula the last three games. The hope is that the confidence from winning will translate into increased scoring.

"I think as a team when you know you're not scoring, as a group of forwards, especially, you kind of start maybe squeezing it a little bit, forcing things that aren't there maybe until you get a few to go in the net," Cullen said, "and all of a sudden you take a deep breath and get back to the way you play."

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