“You get your energy back and get a fresh mind again, so I think that definitely helps,” Preds blueliner Mattias Ekholm said. “Just to be rested and work on stuff on the ice and workout good in the gym, it's always nice...When you're on the road, you have games every second day pretty much, it’s tough.”
Head Coach Peter Laviolette has guided his club through the same recipe that worked 14 days prior: a day off on Wednesday, followed by lengthy practice times on Thursday and Friday. On the ice today, the session was almost entirely about special teams with the Preds power play and penalty kill seeing full-ice work for nearly an hour.
“When we finally got out of that grind [a couple weeks ago], we were able to get in two really hard practices, like we’ve done the last two days,” Laviolette said. “We’ve been able to work on all parts of the system, the power play, penalty kill, two-man advantage and that sort of thing. It proved to be real positive for our group to practice and sharpen up on things. It translated into games and into wins, so certainly I’d like to see the same thing here.”
After practice, several of the Predators skaters agreed that the work put into boosting the club’s offense with the man advantage could have a huge impact over the next eight days and into the playoffs.
“It was really nice to get a break and get down to the video first, see what we need to improve on, and then go out and work on it for a couple days,” Ekholm said. “It’s big with the playoffs coming up, that could be a game changer every day and every game so it's good for us.”
“The last two days, we got a lot of time [on the power play], a lot of looks and reps; it was good to do that,” Nashville forward Mike Fisher said. “It’s something we definitely have to improve on. It gets [more important] toward the end of the season, and into the playoffs. It’s feeling better, it feels like it’s coming and we definitely feel like it’s getting better.”
Included on the Predators first PP unit Friday were Shea Weber and James Neal who have missed the team’s last three and nine games, respectively. Laviolette said seeing two of the team’s top scorers participating in practice for two consecutive days was a positive sign in relation to the pair potentially returning to the lineup on Saturday versus the Stars.
Neal and Weber should not only boost a power play that’s ranked 24th in the NHL, but will also serve as leaders for a Predators roster that has limited postseason experience. Both members of Nashville’s leadership team, the pair have played in a combined 81 playoff games while players such as Filip Forsberg, Ekholm and Seth Jones will be making their postseason debuts in a couple weeks.
“I've been in a lot of different situations in the playoffs and going into the playoffs, so I’m excited,” Neal said. “I'm excited for the young guys to get a taste of it, because there’s nothing better. There’s no better time of the year, and this is why you play the game, this is why you battle all year to get ready for this. It’s going to be exciting, and I’ll just tell them to enjoy it and have fun.”
Still, the Predators aren’t allowing their thinking to drift too far ahead.
Home ice advantage for the team’s first round series and the franchise’s first chance at a divisional crown are still up for grabs. How the Preds fair in two games with Dallas over their last quartet of contests will go a long way in determining their momentum and position when the playoffs start on April 15.
“We just have to focus on the two points and winning, not sure where it will take us,” Laviolette said. “Again, not getting too far ahead of ourselves and just focus on the [next] game and getting the two points. When we wake up the next day, then we can focus on the next one.”
An in-the-moment mantra has helped the Preds claim 47 wins on the season to date, so trusting it for four more contests seems like a pretty smart play. For a team that holds the League’s second-most wins at home, starting the playoffs with two games at Bridgestone Arena is a pretty big deal — a four-game winning streak, and that’s right where they’ll be.
Combos & Pairings:
Eric Nystrom (lower-body) and Paul Gaustad (upper-body) were both absent from the Predators practice at Centennial Sportsplex on Friday. Gaustad will not play on Saturday versus the Stars.
James Neal (upper-body), Shea Weber (lower-body) and Matt Cullen (lower-body) were all full participants at the session, and as was mentioned earlier, Laviolette said there is a possibility that the three players could suit up for Nashville on Saturday.
Friday’s lineup at practice was as follows:
Forsberg – Ribeiro – Neal
Wilson – Fisher – Smith
Stalberg – Cullen – Beck
Bourque – Jarnkrok – Santorelli
The club’s defensive corps did not skate in formal line rushes, but based on certain drill utilization, projected pairings are:
Josi – Weber
Ekholm – Jones
Ellis – Franson
Extra: Volchenkov – Bartley
Peter Laviolette on Cody Franson’s adjustment to the Predators system:
“He’s gotten a lot more comfortable. He’s really getting a grasp of our style, the way we play. It’s difficult when you’ve been somewhere for a few years and they do something a certain way. There’s always little different variations of a system. What to do and what not to do. I think it takes a little bit of time, but the last couple games I think he’s looked more comfortable there.”
Mike Fisher on the team’s current motivation:
“We’re in a big race with a couple teams, and we’ve got to just worry about that one tomorrow. Play hard, be strong and finish this out. We want to be on top, and we still have a chance to get there, and that’s where we want to be.”
Matt Cullen on what’s at stake over the Preds final four games:
“There's still a lot at stake. A lot of movement that can go on here in this last week, so we’re very aware of that. You always want to hit the playoffs playing your best hockey. We've had stretches of good hockey here, but for us it’s important to get to that place where we’re playing playoff hockey here this last week so that we can seamlessly transition right into the playoffs. There are some things that we need to work on and continue to get better at and just to finish out on your strongest note. It’s been a really good season, and we’d sure like to win the division and who knows what else, but we’d like to finish real strong here.
Shot of the Day: