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Preds Mid-Season Recap: Top Players of the First Half

by Jay Levin / Nashville Predators
Here we are on January 14 and the Predators have just passed the midpoint of the 2010-11 season. You’ve voted on your top plays of the first half of the season. Now analyst Jay Levin shares his views on the start of the season.

Turning Point – For me it was the come-from-behind shootout win at Columbus on December 1. The Predators opened December with a 10-8-5 record and had won just five of their previous 15 games. Nashville took a 2-1 lead into the third period, but saw the Blue Jackets score twice in the first 10 minutes of the frame. Just 1:37 after Columbus took the lead, Kevin Klein made a good play at the offensive blue line to hold the puck in the zone, then sidestepped toward the middle of the ice and fired a slap shot past Steve Mason to tie the game ( watch). Steve Sullivan’s deke move in the shootout ( watch) secured the win for the Predators. Prior to that game, the team had a tough time stringing together positive results, but Nashville would go on to pick up points in its next seven games (6-0-1) to climb into the middle of the playoff picture.

Biggest Surprise – To me it’s been the play of forward Sergei Kostitsyn – in his first season with the Predators after three years in the Montreal Canadiens system, Kostitsyn has already set a new career high for goals in a season and is just four points shy of career-best. During Training Camp Kostitsyn’s game didn’t seem to fit the Preds mold, but after a slow start to the season (just three points in his first 19 games) the 23-year old has stepped up when the Predators have needed him most. With injuries decimating the top of the team’s forward depth chart, Kostitsyn has produced at a point-per-game rate with nine goals and 11 assists in his last 20 games, logging more than 15 minutes of ice time in 17 of those 20 games (compared to just once in his first 19 games) and has even worked his way into Nashville’s penalty kill rotation.

Top Newcomer – Sergei Kostitsyn and Shane O’Brien have been solid additions, but I’m going with rookie goaltender Anders Lindback as the team’s top newcomer. When Pekka Rinne went down with an injury early in the third period of the Season Opener, Lindback stepped right in and thrived. In his first North American season, the young Swede has posted a 10-3-2 record with a 2.36 goals against average and .922 save percentage; ranking among the top-10 in the league in both GAA and SV percentage. Lindback, the 207th pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, entered Training Camp in a battle for a roster spot, but just three months into the season, has already emerged as a top flight NHL netminder, including wins in traditionally tough road venues like Chicago and Detroit as well as a win at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa Bay – where the Lightning have gone 13-3-2 this season.

Top Player – Shea Weber is leading the team in points, Patric Hornqvist is pacing the team in goals and is among the league leaders in game-winning goals, Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback have been lights-out in net, but to me the top player of the first half has been Ryan Suter. His offensive production is solid – 20 points in 32 games – and Suter ranks among the Top-10 in the NHL with a +19 plus/minus rating. But his value is felt well beyond his individual stats; the team’s level of play and record with him is eye-popping. With him, the team is 19-8-4 with a +23 scoring margin, compared to 4-6-2 with a -13 scoring margin in the 12 games he was injured. The offense averages 2.84 goals per game with an 18.6 percentage success rate on the power-play while Suter’s in the lineup compared to 1.75 goals per game and a 4.7 power-play percentage without him. For a team that has survived so many injuries this season, he’s been the one player the Preds have really struggled to replace when he’s been out of the lineup. Even more than that, captain Shea Weber’s been a different player when partnered with Suter; Weber’s scoring at a 0.75 point-per-game clip with a +15 plus/minus rating when playing with Suter (6 goals and 23 points in 31 games).

Breakout Candidate for Second Half – I’m going to put my faith in Joel Ward for a big second half of the season. Ward looks like he’s “re-found” his mojo the last few weeks. Recently he’s won most of his one-on-one battles along the boards, has been strong with the puck on his stick, and has been physical on the forecheck. When Ward plays with that intelligent physicality, the points usually start to come for him. And as the team starts to get healthier up front – Martin Erat is expected back soon (perhaps as early as this weekend) and Steve Sullivan should be back around the All-Star Break – Ward could be the benefactor of better offensive opportunities. Ward has averaged 15 goals and 35 points during his Preds career; I think he’ll rally in the second half of the season and finish at least in that same range.

Agree? Disagree? Click here to share your First Half selections/Second Half predictions.
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