On Monday, however, the Nashville Predators didn’t waste time speculating on their No. 1 spot in the standings before completing a hard-working, hour-long practice.
The session at Bridgestone Arena worked on offensive zone drills, breakout plays and featured a shootout, just to mention some of the items on the agenda. After the practice, a few of the team’s players and their head coach did pause to discuss all they’ve accomplished through 41 games.
“We’re at the halfway point and our guys know what they put in to get here,” Predators Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “We’ve got to continue to press. It’s going to get even harder if anything. We’ve got to be ready to play. But that being said, if we’re choosing between the bottom of the standings or the top, we’d all rather be where we are.”
Traded to Nashville this summer, Preds forward James Neal said he came with an open mind to his new team, but that the club’s current success would have been a little too much to wish for back in June.
“I think I came in here not really knowing what to expect,” Neal said. “The way that Lavy believes in our team and built that into our minds early, I think that’s paid off. Right from day one we believed we could win and when we started winning it just gave us even more confidence.
“I love the way our team’s been playing, and I think the best part is that we can get even better.”
The Preds power forward skated on Nashville’s second line at practice alongside Mike Fisher and Colin Wilson. Neal remains on Injured Reserve with a lower-body injury, but the forward appeared to be uninhibited on Monday and Laviolette said, “He’s looked pretty good for a few days now,” after the practice.
“I felt good,” Neal said of the practice. “Obviously it’s not fun when you’re injured and not skating with the guys. But today was a good practice, and it felt good to be back out there with all the boys.”
Laviolette briefly tried Neal on the Predators second line before he was injured on Dec. 30, and it seems the coach will continue to test a more balanced attack offensively.
Wilson explained that playing with a strong winger like Neal has helped to create space in the offensive zone; the 25-year-old has 13 points in his last 10 games.
“He’s a hard-working, big player,” Wilson said of Neal. “It’s fun to play with him and he’s very skilled. He has that great shot, but at the same time he’s working hard all over the ice and it makes it very easy to find space.”
Neal had nine points in his last 11 games prior to injury and has missed Nashville’s last five contests.
Following the Predators 3-1 road win in Minnesota on Saturday, the NHL announced Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne as 2015 All-Stars and Filip Forsberg as a rookie representative.
Participation in the All-Star Weekend in Columbus will be Weber’s fourth-straight appearance and Rinne’s first (the goaltender attended the 2009 festivities as a YoungStar). Rinne said he’s looking forward to the events surrounding the weekend, excluding the game, since the usual high-scoring affair doesn’t showcase a goalie’s abilities very well.
“As a goalie, I’m not really looking forward to the game,” Rinne said with chuckle. “I think for us it’s mainly about surviving. I’m honored, it’s a nice recognition and I’m looking forward to going with some of my teammates. It’s an acknowledgement of our good start.
“The whole atmosphere and seeing the other players will be special. Just hanging out and taking in the experience.”
Due to the fantasy draft dictating which team the All-Stars will play for regardless of conference, Laviolette said the potential of seeing Rinne oppose Weber or having to coach against one of his players could be pretty strange.
“I’m sure it’ll make for some interesting locker room talk,” Laviolette said. “Them playing against each other will be [weird] too...Our guys have played really well this season and I think their appearance there is well deserved.”
Likely to participate in the All-Star Skills Competition, Preds 20-year-old rookie, Forsberg, said he’s focused on simply taking in the new festivities around him.
“I haven’t been able to watch any of it before, so I don’t know what to expect,” said Forsberg. “It’ll be fun to take it all in...You never know what’s going to happen with all the skill guys that will be there and it’s going to be a fun couple of days there for sure.”
Combos & Pairings:
Monday’s line combinations were as follows:
Forsberg - Ribeiro - Smith
Wilson - Fisher - Neal
Cullen - Jarnkrok - Jokinen
Bourque - Gaustad - Beck
Extra: Stalberg, Arcobello
Josi - Weber
Ekholm - Jones
Volchenkov - Bartley
Rinne on his season so far:
“It’s the halfway point of the season and things have been really good and consistent. It’s nice when you’re getting the results. Maybe some nights there’s a goal that I want back, but for the most part we still find ways to win games, so that just makes it look even better. No denying it, I’ve been feeling really good and I’m very confident going out there every time. Physically and mentally, I feel good and that makes for a good situation to play hockey in. I don’t want to think too far ahead though, because our goal as a team is to play even better and we’re working at that.”
Laviolette on the Vancouver Canucks style of play:
“They’re a talented team. There are a certain number of teams that you have to make sure you’re sharp defensively against. Their first line is very dangerous and they can be slippery. They’ve got balanced scoring beneath that line and good goaltending and defensemen. So they’re a well-rounded team and we’re going to have to pay attention to them in our defensive zone.”
Neal on playing with Fisher and Wilson:
“I think it’s a combination of things that makes it work. Willy does a good job of holding onto the puck and Fisher plays a hard-nosed game. He’s always going to the net, and for me, I have to find the open areas they create and shoot the puck as much as I can.”
Shot of the Day: