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Predators' depth, team system has brought results

by Rick Sadowski
DENVER -- There isn't a team in the NHL that more typifies the team concept than the Nashville Predators, who still have an outside chance of overtaking Detroit for first place in the Central Division.

"We don't have any big-time difference makers up front, dynamic guys where you go, ‘If you stop him, you stop that whole team,' " Predators coach Barry Trotz said Thursday morning at the Pepsi Center. "We have a lot of good players that can contribute."

With 92 points and five regular-season games remaining, the Predators are in seventh place in the Western Conference -- six points behind the division-leading Red Wings, whom they meet Saturday at what is expected to be a sold-out Bridgestone Arena.

"It's going to be tough (catching Detroit)," Predators center Mike Fisher said. "If we put a few wins together and get on a roll, you never know, but our focus is making sure we get in (the playoffs)."

The Predators first need to take another step toward securing their sixth playoff berth in seven seasons by knocking off the free-falling Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night.

"They're going to come out and play hard," Trotz said of the Avalanche, who own a 3-21-2 record since Jan. 26 and sit 29th in the overall NHL standings. "There's no pressure on them. It's all about fun for them, about being the fly in the ointment for teams that are still battling for (playoff) positions. They can play with a lot of that freedom. Sometimes that's good for teams and it's hard for us. We just lost a game and we need points. We have to have a Game 7 mentality; we've got to have it."

"It's going to be tough (catching Detroit). If we put a few wins together and get on a roll, you never know, but our focus is making sure we get in (the playoffs)." -- Predators center Mike Fisher

The Predators are coming off a 3-1 home loss to Vancouver, but are 10-3-2 in their past 15 games and outscored the Avalanche 14-6 while winning the three previous meetings between the teams.

The Predators might not have any so-called superstars, but they have used a balanced scoring attack, solid defense led by Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, and extraordinary goaltending from Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne, who has 30 wins, six shutouts and a 2.10 goals-against average.

Weber and right wing Martin Erat share the team scoring lead with just 46 points each and not a single Predator has hit the 20-goal mark for the season.

Yet here they are, challenging a perennial power like Detroit that is stacked with all-stars and future Hockey Hall of Famers.

"It's a little bit of a culture that we probably created from day one," Trotz, the only head coach in franchise history, said of the Predators' team-first concept. "As an expansion team and all that, we created a good culture. We believe our development system is crucial for us as an organization to have success."

Players come and go, as they do on every team, but in Nashville they all eventually buy into the team model.

"A good example is Sergei Kostitsyn, who came from Montreal," Trotz said of the 24-year-old forward, who has 19 goals and 25 assists. "There were some holes in his game that we wanted to correct and I think at first he was a little bit reluctant. But day in and day out, when you're surrounded by the guys doing the same thing, it's hard not to be part of the group and be pulled into what they do.

"The things that I say are helped and prodded along by the guys who are already in the system."

It didn't take long for Fisher, who was acquired from Ottawa on Feb. 10 for two draft picks, to appreciate his new surroundings, and not just because he's married to Nashville-based country music star Carrie Underwood.

It helped that he left a Senators team that had no hope of making the playoffs.

"You know what, the change was a little strange at first after being there so long," said Fisher, who spent his first 10-plus NHL seasons in Ottawa. "But to go from what was probably the most frustrating season that I've had in my career and to come into a position where we're fighting for a playoff spot, it's so much more fun. This is a pretty young team, but we have a lot of fun and we work hard together. It's been great to be a part of it."

Fisher, who has 4 goals and 3 assists in 22 games since the trade, said it isn't necessarily a disadvantage for a team to lack a couple of high-scoring forwards.

"We play well defensively and it's a good team game where you get different guys chipping in at different times and on different nights," he said. "Teams can't key on us as far as trying to shut down one line because it's kind of spread all over. That's kind of been the key to our success. This team is pretty deep and can play any style of game."

Eleven teams in the West have more goals than the 203 the Predators have scored, but only Vancouver and Los Angeles have allowed fewer than the 182 goals they've permitted.

"They're a pretty consistent team as far as getting the job done," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "They have over 90 points right now and I don't think they have a guy who has over 20 goals. It says a lot about the structure of their team. They have very solid goaltending and their defense is very strong led by Weber and Suter, two of the top defensemen in the League. They do a real good job from the back end and in the net."

Football remains king in Tennessee, but the Predators have gained a foothold in the Nashville community. The team has averaged crowds of 16,075 in 17,113-seat Bridgestone Arena this season with 14 sellouts in 38 home games.

"People love the game down there," Trotz said. "Our rink is wild. They actually love our hockey. A non-traditional market is becoming a traditional market. We are now a fabric of Nashville. If we ever have a deep run (in the playoffs), our city will go crazy."
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