NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Barry Trotz likes the improvements his Predators have made this season ? and he thinks his young team can get even better.
Nashville came out of the all-star break with the NHL's best record since Dec. 28 at 12-2-0. Fifth in the Western Conference, only the Rangers (31), Boston (31) and Detroit (33) have more wins than the Predators (30), who started the season as the NHL's youngest team and now are tied for second-youngest in the league.
"This group is a very easy group to work with, good focus, good energy, high commitment level," Trotz said after a short practice Monday. "And they're actually playing with a lot of joy, and that's key."
Expectations are pretty high for a franchise that lost the Western Conference semifinals in six games last season despite its youthful roster. Playing in the Central Division has helped push the Predators to play their best. Even though they trail Detroit and St. Louis in the division, the Predators are 11-2-2 with the best divisional record of any NHL team.
"It's making us play some good hockey," forward Mike Fisher said. "It's so close, and we're not far out of first place. We really want to set our sights on that, and we've got a lot of division games coming up, a lot of tough games, and we feel like we can do it."
As usual, the Predators are drawing much of their confidence from goaltender Pekka Rinne. He was named the NHL's second star of the week Monday after two more wins pushed him to a career-best nine-game winning streak. He has allowed two goals or less in each of his last nine starts.
Trotz had hoped Rinne would play in the all-star game to attract some attention after being a Vezina Trophy finalist last season. But the coach didn't mind that his goalie got time off, saying Rinne needs to be rested to help carry Nashville down the stretch.
"He's got a well-earned rest," Trotz said. "He looks sharp."
Rinne said the Predators needed a break after pushing hard to finish strong going into the All-Star break. The Predators won four straight, including a 3-1 win in Chicago that pushed them past the Blackhawks in the West. Having recharged their batteries, he believes they can pick up where they left off.
"I'm really excited," Rinne said. "I'm really looking forward to going to these last 32 games."
Trotz gave all-star defencemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and rookie Craig Smith the day off Monday, allowing them to fly directly from Ottawa to Minnesota for Tuesday night's game.
The biggest question for Nashville is whether Suter will be signed to a long-term deal before reaching free agency July 1. Suter talked in Ottawa about his pending free agency, and Trotz said he was not concerned about the comments because he knows Suter wants to be in Nashville.
Both Suter and Weber, the captain who will be a restricted free agent this summer, want to see the Predators make a move to add more offence to help them compete for a Stanley Cup. Trotz said they could use some veteran experience before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
The Predators are getting balanced scoring, averaging 3.14 goals per game during their winning stretch, and they are 12th in the NHL, averaging 2.74 goals per game. Nine different Predators have scored at least 10 goals.
That leaves Trotz focusing on the ice and trying to get the Predators back to the playoffs.
"I don't know how it's going to play out, but this group has that special feel to it and a really, really good, focused group, and they're young and they're getting better. Where we are today based on where we were after about five games into the start of the season, I was quite concerned that we might not get our feet on the ground," Trotz said.
"But Peks allowed us to get our feet on the ground, and we've gotten better and better. And I think we're a really good hockey team right now."