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Spaling leads resurgent Predators past Canucks

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- The Nashville Predators went into the third period against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday trailing by a goal and without a win all season when trailing after 40 minutes.

The low-scoring Predators did, however, have some confidence after scoring four goals in each of their past four games. That confidence showed against the Canucks.

Nick Spaling set up Craig Smith's tying goal early in the third period, then scored the go-ahead goal on a nifty power-play deflection with 7:22 left to lead Nashville to a 2-1 come-from-behind win against the Canucks at Rogers Arena.

“This group is used to digging out of little holes,” coach Barry Trotz said. “In the third we just said, ‘We gotta dig in here, we gotta find a way. We know what we gotta do.’ We turned too many pucks over in the second period, and when we did that, we got slower, defending too much. We had to push the pace a little bit and climb the ladder.”

Spaling, who fed Smith from behind the net to tie the game 3:28 into the third, climbed the last rung for his teammates by parking in the slot to deflect rookie defenseman Seth Jones' point shot past Roberto Luongo with three seconds left on a Nashville power play.

“It gives us a little bit of confidence being able to score lately,” Spaling said. “It’s not something we want to do. It’s definitely a lot more comfortable to play with the lead, and the big thing is if we fall behind by one, we don’t want to give them any more.”

Nashville goalie Carter Hutton, who made 33 saves, got credit for that from his captain and his coach.

“We spent a lot of time in our own end in the first, but Huts made some great saves and we were able to battle it out, and the power play came through in the end,” captain Shea Weber said.

The Predators, who were 0-21-2 when trailing after two periods, have won four of five to move within two points of the ninth-place Phoenix Coyotes. They are eight points behind the Canucks and Minnesota Wild, who hold the two Western Conference wild-card spots.

“This team has been really resilient all year,” Trotz said. “It has a lot of backbone, a lot of character, and cares about each other, so when things are a little bit rough, they dig in.”

Nashville came into the game with the NHL's 25th-ranked offense, but after scoring four goals in four straight games, they needed only two to beat a Canucks team that is also struggling to score.

Chris Higgins had the Canucks' lone goal and Luongo made 24 saves in the loss, which snapped Vancouver's modest two-game win streak. The Canucks have lost four of their past six games, scoring six goals in that span and going 2-for-26 on the power play.

"Going into the third when you've got a lead, the least you can do is bring it to overtime,” Luongo said. “The NHL is about a lot of low-scoring games. We've got to find ways to win them. We've got to find ways to bring these games to overtime. We've got to find ways to protect leads. When we get scored on, we've got to keep playing."

Vancouver had a great chance to open the scoring with six minutes in power-play time late in the first period, including a double minor to Matt Cullen for high sticking, but the Canucks only produced four shots, and defenseman Dan Hamhuis failed to convert on a half-dozen backdoor passes through the crease.

Vancouver's power play finished 0-for-5, including a failed attempt to tie it with five minutes left, and is 25th in the League at 14.3 percent.

"I thought our power play did everything tonight except put it in the net,” said assistant coach Mike Sullivan, who's filling in for suspended coach John Tortorella for the second of six games.

It didn't help the Canucks were playing a second game without captain and leading scorer Henrik Sedin, whose ironman streak ended at 679 games against the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday due to a rib injury.

"We should have finished this game earlier. That's the bottom line," Daniel Sedin said. "We had good chances, good looks. I thought we moved the puck well tonight. In the end it doesn't really matter right now. We've got to get some goals."

Defenseman Michael Del Zotto made his Predators debut one day after being acquired from the New York Rangers. That also meant it was Nashville’s first game without top penalty-killing defenseman Kevin Klein, who was traded to the Rangers for Del Zotto.

Klein's absence didn’t seem to hurt their penalty killing.

“We got some good goaltending. Carter was really good on those backdoor plays,” Trotz said. “They were executing that pretty well. We were having trouble trying to stop that, and he got over there.”

Trotz also praised Del Zotto, who was paired with Jones but left off the power play in his first game with Nashville.

“I liked a lot of things he did,” Trotz said of Del Zotto, adding that power-play time would come as he gets settled in with the Predators.

Higgins opened the scoring midway through the second period, neatly tipping a shot that was headed with up and over Hutton's glove on the short side for his first goal in seven games.

Smith tied it 3:28 into the third period after a nice pass from Spaling behind the net into the slot, quickly one-timed it over Luongo's glove-side shoulder for his team-leading 16th goal. After Spaling's goal put Nashville ahead, Hutton preserved his third straight win with a left-pad save off Higgins on a partial breakaway with 2:10 left.

“I fought a couple off early, mishandled playing it trying to get a little cute, and then I think I settled down on that big penalty kill,” Hutton said. “I was testing the old cardio out, but from there I settled in.”

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