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Predators rally to beat 'Canes 3-2

by Kurt Dusterberg
Rookie Chris Mueller is doing his best to prove to the Nashville Predators that he's worthy of a roster spot.

Mueller, who spent most of the 2010-11 season playing at Milwaukee in the AHL, scored his third goal in four preseason games, breaking a 2-2 tie with seven minutes left in regulation Friday night to give the Predators a 3-2 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes.

"It's a confidence builder. I'm trying to give them a reason to keep me here," said Mueller, who has three goals and an assist in four preseason games. "When you get a chance to show your stuff in a game, you've got to make it count."

Mueller joined the Predators as a free agent, logging time in the ECHL before working his way to the American Hockey League. He earned the attention of Nashville's coaching staff last season by scoring 24 goals and 50 points -- earning a 15-game trial with the Predators.

"When we would phone down to Milwaukee and ask who the best guy is down there, it kept being Chris Mueller," Nashville coach Barry Trotz. "We always pride ourselves on if you play well in Milwaukee, you'll get your chance."

For Mueller, who was passed over in the Entry Draft, making an NHL roster is the main goal.

"You get a taste of the lifestyle and how specially we're treated, and you want to stay there, he said. "It's every player's dream, but you've got to work to make it a reality. I know the way they like our players to play, and I'm trying to go out there and do it in practice and in the games."

Forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, signed as a free agent in the summer, scored both of Carolina's goals, He started the scoring on a wraparound 31 seconds into the game, beating goaltender Jeremy Smith through the legs. Smith, the backup goalie in Milwaukee last season, faced nine shots in the first period before giving way to Anders Lindback to start the second period.

Nashville evened the score at 17:58 of the second when Juuso Puustinen fired a pass from the left-wing boards to David Legwand, who was alone on the doorstep for a short-side goal.

Cam Ward started the game in goal for Carolina, making his first appearance of the preseason after missing time with upper back stiffness. Ward wasn't tested much in the first period, but in the second, he stopped rookie left wing Gabriel Bourque twice as he tried to stuff a couple chances in close.

Ponikarovsky scored his second goal of the night 17 seconds into the third period when he uried a loose puck in the crease after Lindback had stopped Eric Staal's shot. Jack Hillen answered for Nashville at 5:23 when he gathered a centering pass from Bourque at the top of crease and beat Justin Peters, who had relieved Ward to start the third period.

Mueller gave the Predators the lead when he slid the rebound of Nicklas Bergfors' shot under Peters' left pad.

"The new guys are getting used to playing with each other," said Hillen, who signed in Nashville after three seasons with the New York Islanders. "Every game we're getting more detail-oriented on our systems. It's really coming along."

With a 3-1-0 mark in the preseason, Trotz is beginning to see his team take shape.

"Our young defense has a couple of guys that can play," Trotz said. "We're also starting to develop some forward who will produce. They play Predator hockey. There's maybe not a 40-goal scorer in there, but they're good two-way players."

Carolina lost two forwards, Tuomo Ruutu and Tim Brent, with lower-body injuries.

Ponikarovsky made a strong impression on Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. The former Los Angeles Kings forward is looking to bounce back after a sub-par season.

"He was the positive up front for me," said Maurice, whose team fell to 0-2. "It wasn't that he scored two, it's the way he scored his two — at the net. That's a great reinforcement for him."

The Predators return to action on Saturday night when they host the Winnipeg Jets. Carolina's next game is Sunday evening against Winnipeg in Charlotte, N.C.
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