DUCKS (33-12-6) at PREDATORS (33-11-6)
TV: PRIME, FS-TN
NASHVILLE -- Goaltender Pekka Rinne will make his return to the lineup for the Nashville Predators against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena in a battle for first place in the NHL.
Rinne missed eight games with a sprained knee that he sustained Jan. 13 against the Vancouver Canucks. He still leads the League in wins with 29 despite being sidelined for three weeks.
"I feel like I was fortunate," Rinne said. "It wasn't anything too serious. Obviously being a goalie, any time you're dealing with your knees it's a little bit different than being a [forward or defenseman] since we spend a lot of time on our knees on butterfly and whatnot. You have to be back to 100 percent when you come back."
Rinne said if the game Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins had been late in the season or in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he could have played. The Predators chose to take a cautious approach in putting Rinne back in the lineup and Carter Hutton ended up shutting out the Penguins 4-0.
"It's great to have him out there," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. "He looks terrific. He has for a few days. We've actually pushed this off. Yes, he'll start [Thursday]. We pushed it off a little bit, I think, just to err on the side of caution. Carter [Hutton] was coming off of a big game in Pittsburgh as well, but we just wanted to make sure [Rinne] got lots of practice under his belt. He's fully ready both from a comfort level of being on the ice and in game shape, as well as his injury. He's ready to go."
Nashville went 4-2-2 with Rinne out of the lineup and was led by Hutton, who finished that span with a 4-1-2 record.
"You look at the standings and we're still on top, so I couldn't be happier," Rinne said. "I'm really happy for Carter. It was tough for him to get wins in the beginning of the season, and now he's been playing really well."
Anaheim starts a five-game, nine-day road trip Thursday, after spending most of January at home.
"We had a pretty easy month as far as January goes, being home most of the time," Ducks forward Kyle Palmieri said. "It's been a while since we had a nice, long road trip. For our group, I just think we're looking forward to getting the ball rolling in the right way tonight and hopefully carry some momentum through this trip."
The winner between Anaheim and Nashville on Thursday will be the No. 1 team in the League. Anaheim defeated Nashville in a shootout 4-3 in their first game on Jan. 4 at Honda Center.
"It's going to be a tough one," Palmieri said. "Obviously the last time we played them, it was a close game. It came down to the shootout. It's not one of those games where we look back on and thought we could have done a lot of things better. We played a pretty good game. In their barn, it's going to be different. I think we're going to have to play a little bit different style of game but, at the same time, we know we can compete."
Nashville is a League-best 20-2-1 at home and has won a franchise record nine consecutive home games.
Here are the projected lineups:
Rene Bourque – Ryan Getzlaf – Corey Perry
Andrew Cogliano – Ryan Kesler – Devante Smith-Pelly
Matt Beleskey – Rickard Rakell – Jakob Silfverberg
Kyle Palmieri – Nate Thompson – Patrick Maroon
Cam Fowler – Eric Brewer
Hampus Lindholm – Francois Beauchemin
Clayton Stoner – Sami Vatanen
Scratched: Ben Lovejoy, Tim Jackman
Filip Forsberg – Mike Ribeiro – Craig Smith
Colin Wilson – Mike Fisher – James Neal
Matt Cullen – Calle Jarnkrok – Gabriel Bourque
Eric Nystrom – Paul Gaustad – Taylor Beck
Roman Josi – Shea Weber
Mattias Ekholm – Anton Volchenkov
Victor Bartley – Seth Jones
Scratched: Olli Jokinen
Injured: Ryan Ellis (lower body)
Status report: Anaheim is going with a different look against Nashville, with Bourque joining Getzlaf and Perry on the top line and Stoner coming back in the lineup on defense. … Nashville held an optional morning skate. Ellis has started skating but there is no specific timetable for his return.
Who's hot: Perry has four points in the past two games and six points in the past five games. … Fisher has four goals and three assists in the past four games and has 25 points in 29 games this season.