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Predators start trip with a visit to Phoenix

by Brian Hunter

PREDATORS (29-17-3) at COYOTES (28-17-5)

Last 10 --Nashville 7-3-0; Phoenix 4-4-2

Season series -- It's the first of four meetings this season. The Coyotes won the first matchup last season, 2-1 on home ice, before the Predators took three straight. Nashville outscored Phoenix 8-2 in those victories, including a 2-0 shutout for Pekka Rinne in the most recent game on March 14, 2009, at Arena.

Big story -- Defense and goaltending, hallmarks for the Coyotes over the first three months of the season, have let them down since the start of the new year. Phoenix has allowed at least three goals in all eight games it has played in 2010 -- prior to that, Dave Tippett's club hadn't given up three goals in more than two straight games all season. Once among a handful of the top defensive teams in the League, the Coyotes have slipped to ninth, allowing an average of 2.5 goals per game.

Team Scope:

Predators -- There was a valuable lesson to be learned for Nashville on Monday, when the Predators staged an inspired comeback only to ultimately fall short. Toronto, near the bottom of the League standings and a team Nashville rarely sees, stormed out to a 3-0 lead at the Sommet Center in the opening nine minutes. The Predators came all the way back to tie, but a late goal by the Leafs' Phil Kessel resulted in a 4-3 loss.

"We got back to it the way that we normally play," captain Jason Arnott said. "We were forechecking really hard, first-man, second-man, being on the 'D,' getting on the puck. We weren't doing that during the first; we were just kind of sitting back and allowing too many turnovers."

-- This is the finale of six-game homestand for Phoenix, which probably hopes it hit rock bottom with Monday's 7-2 loss to Buffalo. Three goals in the first 24:01 chased Ilya Bryzgalov from the net, and after captain Shane Doan got the Coyotes on the board and briefly brought the crowd to life, the Sabres answered back with two more goals before the end of the second period.

Bryzgalov already has a career-high five shutouts this season and is just one away from matching his best total for wins in a season, but he's allowed 25 goals in his last seven starts and been pulled twice in that span.

"Stops he was making earlier in the year he just hasn't been able to get right now," Tippett said. "We'll keep working with him, (goaltending coach) Sean (Burke) can work with him. He's just like the rest of our group -- he needs to play better."

Who's hot
-- Although he gave up Kessel's goal and took the loss, Dan Ellis was credited by Nashville coach Barry Trotz as being their best player Monday. Ellis took over after Rinne allowed three goals on eight shots and stopped 13 of 14 shots over the final 51 minutes, giving the Predators a chance to come back. Ellis has given up two goals or less in five straight appearances. Ryan Jones, who scored the tying goal against Toronto, has lit the lamp in three of his last four games. … Radim Vrbata has 3 goals and 2 assists during a five-game points streak for Phoenix. Doan has goals in two straight and Petr Prucha has two goals and an assist in the last two games.

Injury report
-- Forwards Jordin Tootoo (broken foot) and Jerred Smithson (broken hand) remain sidelined for the Predators. … Forward Daniel Winnik left the Coyotes' game Monday with an upper-body injury, while defenseman Kurt Sauer (head) has been on injured reserve since October.

Stat pack -- Fifth-year defenseman Kevin Klein, who signed a new three-year deal with Nashville on Tuesday, is averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game, a major increase from the 12:39 he played last season. … Fourth-year defenseman Keith Yandle already has a career-high 6 goals for Phoenix.

Puck drop -- Just another game between Western Conference teams battling for playoff positioning -- the Predators and Coyotes each start play Thursday with 61 points. As a result of having one more win and one fewer game played, Nashville currently holds the coveted fourth seed, which brings with it home ice in the first round.

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