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VOL. 42 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 12, 2018

10 reasons fans should be bullish on Preds

By John Glennon

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Nashville Predators goalie Juuse Saros stops the shot of Minnesota Wild right wing Mikael Granlund between the Minnesota Wild vs the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena.

-- Steve Roberts/Csm; Cal Sport Media Via Ap Images

There are plenty of reasons to feel good about the Predators as they ready for a return from a one-week layoff.

The Preds piled up 24 wins and 54 points through the first half of their season, six wins and 11 points more than they registered in the first half of the 2016-17 season.

They’ve also spent plenty of time battling for first place in both the Central Division and Western Conference.

“In an industry that strives for perfection, you’re always looking to do better,” Predators general manager David Poile says. “But I’m excited about our team. You always want more, but I think we’re in a good position and we’re poised to have a good second half.”

That’s not to say all is perfect for the Preds, who got their first real dose of adversity in quite some time as the first half of the season came to a close. Nashville went 3-4-2 over its last nine games, a big turnaround from the team’s 16-2-2 mark over the previous 20 contests.

So, what should we expect from the Preds coming out of the break next Tuesday?

Here are 10 storylines to follow on the path to the playoffs:

Home cooking: The Preds played 23 road games and 18 home games during the first half of the season. That imbalance will be rectified in short order. When the Predators return from their current layoff, they’ll play four straight games – and six of the next seven – at home. The Preds were 12-4-2 at Bridgestone Arena during the first half of the season and should be able to pile up plenty of points in front of their lively crowds during the second half.

Scorers galore: Though the Preds’ scoring pace has slowed in recent weeks, this team is loaded with offensive potential.

In the final 26 games of the first half – since acquiring center Kyle Turris in trade – the Predators scored 86 goals, the second-highest total in the league. The Preds feature five players who’ve already hit double-digit goals and 10 players who’ve already topped 20 points this season.

Even without the injured Filip Forsberg in the lineup, the Predators will go into most every game with more scoring talent – both at forward and defense – than their opponents.

Sluggish starts: The Predators have, at times, been guilty of starting games slowly this year. They were outshot in the first periods of games during the first half of the season, and were often too reliant on goaltending to hold them close. Nashville scored only 30 first-period goals in the team’s first 41 games, which ranked in the bottom third of the league.

The good news is that the Preds’ second periods have been outstanding. They blew out opponents by a 58-37 margin in second periods during the first half of the season. Those 58 goals ranked tied for first in the NHL with Tampa Bay.

If the Preds can transfer some of that second-period energy to the first period, they’ll be better off in the season’s second half.

Saros stepping up: Preds back-up goaltender Juuse Saros struggled in October and November, raising the possibility that starter Pekka Rinne would have to play more games than the team wanted him to this season.

But Saros has turned things around since the start of December. In his last six starts during the season’s first half, Saros posted a 3-1-2 mark with three shutouts, a 1.33 goals-against average and a .960 save percentage.

If Saros can continue his above-average play, he and Rinne should form a dynamic combination in the second half of the season. That should allow Rinne – who’s been consistently strong – a necessary amount of rest heading into the playoffs.

“I think Pekka really had an all-star first half,” Poile acknowledges. “There’s more back-to-backs and more three games in four nights in the second half of the season. So, with Saros playing so well, you’d hope he could get a few more games in the second half.”

More help coming?: As potent as the Preds have the capability to be offensively, there’s the possibility they might add another skilled young player at some point during the season’s second half.

The team’s most recent first-round draft pick, forward Eeli Tolvanen, is torching the KHL at the age of 18, totaling 32 points (17 goals, 15 assists) in his first 39 games. At the recent World Junior Championship in Buffalo, Tolvanen’s six points (one goal, five assists) in five games tied for tops on the Finnish roster. He also poured 30 shots on goal in those six contests to lead his team.

The Preds are considering signing Tolvanen and bringing him to Nashville once his KHL season ends in either March or April.

Trade-deadline move?: The trade deadline is Feb. 26, but Poile has shown a preference for making his deals early over the years, so it will be interesting to see if the Preds make any moves.

With the team playing well overall and the roster full of talent, Poile may well pass on making a big deal this season. If the Preds do make a trade, expect it to be for a forward – since the team already has eight defensemen on the roster.

The addition of Alexei Emelin during the offseason, along with the recent return of Ryan Ellis, “negates any thought or need of making a trade to add a defenseman at the trading deadline,” Poile says.

Penalty problems: Through their first 41 games, the Predators were crushing the competition in penalty minutes – and that’s not a good thing. The Preds were whistled for a league-high 214 penalties and spent an average of 13:21 in the penalty box.

Only one other team had taken as many as 200 penalties and was averaging over 11 minutes of time in the box as of this past weekend. The Preds are taking too many foolish penalties – like interference and too many men on the ice – and can’t keep putting pressure on their penalty killers.

“That’s been a sore point for every player and every coach,” Poile adds. “I love our aggressive style, but the rules have changed a little this year on the slash and things like that and we haven’t adapted as well as we should to this point. That’s an area that the second half, I’d really like to be improve, to be more disciplined.”

Strong special teams: If the Preds can keep up their success on both the power play and penalty kill in the second half of the season, they’ll be in good shape.

In the first half of the season, the Predators finished fourth in the league in power-play percentage (24.2 percent), and they were especially lethal at home with a success rate of 32.4 percent – second-best in the league.

Overall, the Predators scored almost 30 percent of their goals on the power play in the first 41 games. That’s a pretty high figure, one to keep in mind considering there aren’t usually as many power play opportunities in the playoffs.

As for the penalty kill, the Preds spent much of the first half of the season in the league’s top 10, but dipped to 12th after 41 games with a success rate of 82 percent.

“Special teams have won us a lot of games this year, both in teams of scoring goals and preventing goals,” Poile says. “That said, if we can improve our game a little bit, the next step would be to get a little better on the five on five, the even strength. If we could do that with a combination of how well our specialty teams are playing, we’ll be a tough team to beat.”

Finding the right fits: The one constant line combination for the Preds over the last several weeks has been the threesome of Kevin Fiala, Kyle Turris and Craig Smith. That trio formed a quick chemistry following Turris’ trade acquisition and piled up plenty of points.

As for the other groupings, it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see Forsberg be placed on the team’s top line along with Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson when he returns from his upper-body injury.

But it’s not a guarantee, as this trio has been broken up from time to time this season.

There’s been even more shuffling among the third and fourth lines, as several players have switched positions and line mates. Expect the Preds to get more settled combinations as they get closer to the postseason.

Overtime points: The Preds posted a 4-6 mark in games that went to overtime/shoot-out during the first half of the season. That’s not great, but it represents a big improvement from their combined overtime/shoot-out record from the past two seasons – which was 12-26.

Every point matters in the battle for playoff position and home-ice advantage, so the Preds could help themselves with more consistent success beyond 60 minutes.

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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