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Predators look forward to going home after long trip

by Jon Lane

NEW YORK -- Perspective often comes into play when a team is on an extended road trip. Take the Nashville Predators, who haven't seen their home ice since a 6-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 26. With the Country Music Association Awards held at Bridgestone Arena on Nov. 6, the Predators headed out of town.

The Predators had to keep themselves mentally tough and physically focused for a road trip that included a franchise-record seven games and 17 days through four time zones before they return home to face the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday. Long road trips can be grueling; just ask a New York Rangers team that started the season 3-6-0 while playing nine games and spending 25 days away from Madison Square Garden. On the other hand, extended journeys offer the chance for a team to bond and to focus on the business at hand without the distractions that can come during a homestand.

"You get to eat, sleep and breathe hockey 24/7," Predators forward Matt Hendricks told "You can turn your mind off when you want to, but for the most part you get to play hockey and that's it. I just worry about myself, worry about hockey. That's the good part of being on the road."

But for all the nice hotels, charter planes and first-class treatment, the Predators have had enough of the road. The light at the end of the tunnel is finally visible. But first, there's one last day of packing bags and getting on an airplane for a Friday night date against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center.

Nashville started the trip by going 2-0-1 against three of the NHL's top teams, the Phoenix Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche, before the bottom fell out against three teams that were under .500. They were routed 5-0 by the Winnipeg Jets and New Jersey Devils before losing 3-1 to the New York Islanders on Tuesday. After being outscored 13-1 in the three losses, Nashville is 8-8-2 and tied for last place in the Central Division.

"I think maybe we got a little over our heads and started thinking we're a little better than we were," Predators forward Eric Nystrom told "Our game got a little lackadaisical and we got exposed big-time in the last three games. We've got to get back to the reasons we were playing the way that we're supposed to, that gave us a chance to beat L.A. and Colorado, and play in that Phoenix game [a 5-4 shootout loss].

"Maybe we got a little overconfident and [got] a dose of reality in the last three games. We just have to get back to playing our style of hockey."

The Predators scored 12 goals over the first three games of their trip, but they got away from their identity as a hard-working, defense-first club. Hendricks came to the realization that the Predators aren't the run-and-gun team that lost a shootout to the Coyotes and beat the Kings and Avalanche. Once they were down a goal in the next three games, their confidence disappeared, defensive responsibilities were neglected and the offense went cold.

"We started off well," Hendricks said. "We came out of the gates flying. Then we lost our momentum, lost our steam a little bit and we kind of slumped. Our goal scoring hasn't been there. It's almost like we kind of got stale."

They're also experiencing life without their security blanket. Starting goalie Pekka Rinne, a two-time Vezina Trophy nominee, is out indefinitely with a bacterial infection in his hip. Thrust into the starting role, rookie Carter Hutton has allowed three goals or more in each of his past six starts, and owns a 3.53 goals-against average and .887 save percentage.

Rinne's absence has meant the Predators can't rely on an All-Star goaltender to erase their mistakes.

"When you have [Rinne] in the pipes, you make that mistake and you know he's going to be pulling some crazy save out of nowhere," Nystrom said. "At the same time, he's not there. That's not an excuse. We need to just play better defensively. Our goalies need to play better. Our whole team needs to play better. This is a great opportunity for Carter and Maz [rookie Marek Mazanec] to come in and get an opportunity. We need them to step up their games, and we need to be better in front of them too."

Different things have gone wrong on different days. The Predators had 41 shots at Winnipeg but never recovered after allowing three goals before the midway point of the first period, Against the Devils, a power play that had been 5-for-11 in its previous four games went 0-for-6; in all, the Predators managed just 15 shots in 60 minutes against Martin Brodeur. Two nights later in New York, coach Barry Trotz was unhappy with his team being slow to the puck and losing 1-on-1 battles. The Islanders outshot Nashville 16-10 and attempted 34 shots to the Predators' 16 in the first period.

"We're going through a tough time," Trotz said after the game. "We have to tighten up and put together better efforts."

There were some rays of hope in the loss to the Islanders. Mazanec, making his second career start, stopped 30 of 33 shots. The Predators dominated play in the third period and ended a streak of 13 unanswered goals when Patric Hornqvist scored with 5:30 left in regulation. The goal snapped a scoring drought of 174:48 that began after the Predators hit the empty net with 18 seconds left to finish off a 6-4 win against the Avalanche on Nov. 6.

"To finally get that goal was huge for us," Nystrom said of Hornqvist's goal. "Even though it was meaningless, to know that we can do it and score definitely boosted our morale."

Nystrom and Co. are counting on the return home Saturday to provide an adrenaline surge. Two seasons ago, the Predators went 26-10-5 at Bridgestone Arena to help them to a second-place finish in the Central. The team feeds off the support from one of the NHL's enthusiastic crowds, and they'll need that to regain traction in the playoff picture. Although the Predators are back on the road next Tuesday and Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, they end November with four of five at home. In December, the Predators are in Nashville for nine of 13 games.

"We really need to be successful at home," Nystrom said. "We need to feed off the energy in that building. It's crucial to be a good home team. We really need to do that. We're already behind the eight-ball, so we're going to need those home games."

The first order of business is Friday in Pittsburgh, where a win would give the Predators a .500 record on the trip -- not bad considering what has transpired the past three games.

"We've got to win first in Pittsburgh," Hendricks said. "I miss the family and it's been a long one, but it's part of our business, part of our job, so we gotta prepare and get ready for Pittsburgh and go home with two points."


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