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With help from blue line, Predators top Stars

by John Manasso

NASHVILLE -- Over the past four games, the offensive play of their defensemen has carried the Nashville Predators, but only because their forwards have allowed them to do so.

That was the case Monday when Shea Weber and Roman Josi each scored and Carter Hutton made 35 saves in a 4-1 win against the Dallas Stars at Bridgestone Arena.

In the Predators' past four games (three victories), seven of their 15 goals have come from three defensemen: Weber, Josi and Ryan Ellis. Josi, who added an assist Monday, has points in four straight games (two goals, three assists); Weber has three goals and two assists in his past four games and Ellis, who did not record a point on Monday, has two goals and two assists in his past four. Weber and Josi each was plus-3 on Monday.

Weber, named an alternate captain for Canada's Olympic team on Sunday, has recorded 22 points in his past 22 games. Josi and Ellis also scored shootout goals in a 4-3 win against the Philadelphia Flyers last Thursday.

"They've been really high contributors for us," Predators coach Barry Trotz said of the defense. "We've asked them to be active. We asked our forwards to do a better job of managing the puck so they can be active. Because one of the things [is] you’ve got to trust that the forwards are going to do the right things so the [defense] can be involved in the play. They've got to be positionally really sound and the forwards have done a better job of that.

"Our structure has been really good and every night we’re right there, so ..."

Weber cited the play of the forwards in another way, but said there was no magic secret as to why the defense is chipping in offensively so much recently.

"No, just trying to get pucks to the net," Weber said. "Obviously, there have been some good screens lately and things are just going [in], so hopefully we can just keep getting things there and we'll get second opportunities off of it."

Nashville (22-22-7) continued a fitful climb up the standings. The Predators have earned points in nine of their past 13 games (6-4-3), but improved to 2-3-1 in their past six at home, where they have played six of their past seven games. The Predators embark on a four-game, six-day road trip to Western Canada starting Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks, one of the teams the Predators hope to catch for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"After Christmas we've really been finding our game together," said right wing Patric Hornqvist, who picked up his 16th assist. "Our defensemen have scored a little bit more for us and play really good defense too. We get goals from everyone and everybody chip in and some lines score and other nights the other lines score."

With the win, Nashville moved one point ahead in the standings of Central Division rival Dallas (21-20-8), which continued its downward slide. The Stars have won once in their past 10 games (1-8-1). Stars coach Lindy Ruff described Josi's goal, which came late in the second period and pushed Nashville's advantage to two goals, as "deflating."

"There's nothing you can do," Ruff said. "But you've got to push through it. I told them, 'gonna play the guys and go up on your toes and go after it and double-shift.' I started double-shifting lines in the second period. This is on me to get the team through this. I look at myself first and we've got to perform a little bit better. We've got some defensemen, I thought, didn't move the puck as crisp as they should."

The Stars actually scored the game's first goal during a brief momentum-swinging stretch early in the first period, when Nashville went from possibly being ahead by a goal to down one. David Legwand negated a goal by Weber – the referee immediately waved it off -- by tripping Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen and earning a goaltender interference penalty in the process at 3:06.

The Stars capitalized on that power play to take a 1-0 lead. Rich Peverley backhanded a cross-ice pass to Cody Eakin, who beat Hutton high to the glove side with a slap shot at 4:45 for his 11th goal.

Nashville tied the game at 11:35. Legwand led the play off the rush and found Josi trailing. Lehonten (19 saves) made the initial stop on Josi's wrist shot, but Nick Spaling slammed the rebound into an open net.

With 2:44 left in the first, Weber made sure his next goal counted, and Nashville took the lead, 2-1. After a flurry of activity around the Dallas goal, former Stars forward Eric Nystrom passed him the puck from behind the net and Weber snapped a wrist shot low to the blocker side for his 13th goal, best in the NHL among defensemen.

With 32 seconds left in the second period, Josi put Nashville up 3-1. The puck came free to Nashville center Paul Gaustad in front of the net and Gaustad tried to stick handle to free himself for a shot. He lost control but the puck came right to Josi, who wristed it home from 21 feet.

Mike Fisher scored his 13th, completing in a 2-on-1 with Colin Wilson. He went high glove with a wrist shot at 3:46 of the third period.

Hutton won his third straight game to improve to 10-7-2. Last week, the Predators acquired goalie Devan Dubnyk, who lost 5-4 on Saturday to the Colorado Avalanche.

Hutton is showing that he will not concede the goal to his new teammate, a former starter for the Edmonton Oilers and first-round pick. Hutton has stopped 84 of 90 shots over his past three starts for a save percentage of .933.

"I think I find ways to win games, battling here," Hutton said. "I have a good team in front of me. I continue to do my job, just kind of battle and find ways to win. Through all of the ups and downs, you've got to stay level and just keep working hard."

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