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VOL. 43 | NO. 4 | Friday, January 25, 2019

With injuries fading, Preds look to make a run

By Chip Cirillo

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Filip Forsberg is one of many Predators to have missed significant time this season, returning Jan. 7 after a 17-game absence. He has four goals and three assists in eight games since rejoining the squad.

-- Photo By John Russell / Nhli Via Getty Images

November was hard on the Predators, but things improved drastically during an 11-day span in December and January.

That’s a good omen entering the second half of the season.

Nashville lost two-thirds of its top line and one of the NHL’s best defensemen to November injuries, but all three players have returned to the lineup.

Right wing Viktor Arvidsson, tied for the team lead in goals (18) as of Jan. 19, missed 24 games with two injuries before returning Dec. 27.

P.K. Subban, the Norris Trophy winner as the league’s best defenseman in 2013, suffered an upper-body injury three days after Arvidsson broke his thumb.

That knocked Subban out of the lineup for 19 days before his return on the same day as Arvidsson.

Then left wing Filip Forsberg, who also has 18 goals, joined the parade with an upper-body injury on Nov. 29. He missed 17 games before returning on Jan. 7.

All three are on the power-play and penalty-killing units, which made their absence even more difficult.

“There’s no question that we’d rather have our full lineup, but we didn’t talk about it much,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette says. “There’s nothing you can do about it. Things happen on a day-to-day basis and you’re either going to float or you’re going to sink.”

To Nashville’s credit, it didn’t sink.

The Predators floated along with a 12-10-3 record between Arvidsson’s broken thumb and Forsberg’s return in a win at Toronto.

The toughest stretch came from mid to late December when Nashville lost six consecutive games.

The Predators’ depth kept them in the Western Conference’s top five and second in the Central Division behind Winnipeg as of Jan. 19 with the All-Star break drawing near.

ESPN rated the Predators third in its NHL Power Rankings after week 15 – not bad for a team floating along through injuries.

Arvidsson broke his thumb crashing into the boards during a 5-4 overtime win at Dallas. “That’s my first pro injury and it wasn’t fun just watching for six weeks,” Arvidsson explains. “I’m happy to be back, and I was eager to get back.”

Arvidsson also missed three games with a lower-body injury shortly before breaking his thumb.

Subban says he’s still trying to find his game since returning to the ice.

“I don’t think I’ve played my best hockey yet this year and I’m hoping that every game I just continue to just build and get better,” Subban explains. “I still think my conditioning needs to get up. It’s tough because after six weeks of sitting you just jump right in the game.”

Subban has been doing some extra skating on off days to improve his conditioning. The schedule didn’t do Subban and Arvidsson any favors, either.

“Not only are you coming back in, but you’ve got the league’s best teams that you’re playing against,” Subban acknowledges. “Our road trip was a tough one and now we’ve got Washington twice and then Winnipeg. It’s a tough one, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Washington is the defending Stanley Cup champion and Winnipeg ended Nashville’s season in the second round of the playoffs last season.

Mattias Ekholm was Subban’s longtime defensive partner, but Laviolette paired him with captain Roman Josi for two games last week. That combined two of the league’s most offensive-minded defensemen.

“I think Jos’ game is he’s up the ice probably a little bit more than I am, which suits his game,” Subban says. “I think it’s just about us making smart reads, knowing when each other is in and knowing when to stay out.”

Subban is fine with not cycling the puck in the offensive zone, so he can play near the blue line to take advantage of his booming slap shot or one-timers.

“We switched up the power-play units so that we had fresh players,” Laviolette notes. “We’ve not broken the d-pairings because of five-on-five play.”

Ekholm, who was paired with Ryan Ellis on the second unit, is glad to have Subban back. “He takes a big burden for us with a lot of minutes,” Ekholm says. “He’s a great player so obviously we missed him and it’s nice to have him back.”

Winnipeg left wing Kyle Connor says he believes the biggest challenge to beating Nashville is dealing with its back end and the Jets are wary of the Josi-Subban pairing.

“We’ve got to know when they’re on the ice and those guys always seem to create something in the offensive zone, some havoc,” Connor points out. “They always get some movement around, too, up top so it’s tough to cover, but we’re a quick group.”

Forsberg’s return completed the reunification of the JoFA Line, one of the NHL’s best with a combined 44 goals through Jan. 19.

“Obviously, the last few games have been a step in the right direction for our whole team,” Forsberg said after a 7-2 rout of Washington last week.

Center Ryan Johansen, the playmaker on the JoFA Line with a team-high 34 assists, is happy to have his wingers back.

“Obviously, two of the best in the business,” Johansen adds. “It’s inspiring for our group, it’s contagious for our team in the way they play so having them back definitely makes our team a lot better.”

Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, who’s playing in Saturday’s All-Star Game along with Josi, appreciates the returning support in front of him.

“Guys like Filip and Viktor, offensively it’s hard to replace them,” Rinne acknowledges. “They have so much individual skill, speed. Makes our power play better. You try to replace those qualities as a group, but it’s been clearly shown since those guys got back they’ve scored some big goals for us.”

Arvidsson put an exclamation point on his return with a hat trick against the Capitals.

“He could have scored more than three, but to me it’s a credit to the whole line and the way the line plays when they’re clicking,” Laviolette says. “They’ve been chanting Arvy’s name here for two years now, so this isn’t something all of a sudden. He brings it every day and it’s just part of who he is.”

Nashville still has three players out with injuries: center Kyle Turris (lower body), left wing Miikka Salomaki (upper body) and left wing Zac Rinaldo (undisclosed).

The Jets feel the Predators’ pain because they’ve also been hampered by injuries. Three Jets are out of the lineup, including defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (6-5, 260, 25 assists) and left wing Nikolaj Ehlers (15 goals).

“In fairness, I think they’ve suffered more than we have,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice says. “They lost key guys off their top pairings and their top forward lines, and for long periods. They got off to a fantastic start and then survived (those injuries), a little above .500, which kept them right in the running for first place.”

Winnipeg pounded Nashville 5-1 last week, but Arvidsson (5-9, 180) scored the Predators’ only goal – a reminder of how talented the JoFA Line is.

“You’ve got different elements: incredible speed on the wings, great playmaking in the middle and now they have a long-term chemistry,” Maurice adds. “They’ve played together long enough now that they can do things without slowing their game down.”

Winnipeg and Nashville got to know each other well last season when they played each other 11 times: four in the regular season and seven more in the playoffs. The Predators boasted the NHL’s best regular-season record, but the Jets knocked them off in a high-scoring playoff series.

So Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey knows exactly what the Predators’ top line is capable of.

“The combination of that line: Johansen is a great passer, Forsberg is big, great shot, goes to the net hard and Arvidsson is quick,” Morrissey points out. “He’s got a great shot as well, but he competes really hard on pucks. You might have a half-step on him, but he never quits on a puck and he finds a way to get into the tough areas in front of the net for not-a-huge guy. So, definitely, they’re feeling it right now.”

Mark Scheifele (25 goals, 33 assists), who centers Winnipeg’s top line, enjoys competing against the JoFA Line.

“At the end of the day, it’s the team that minimizes on mistakes and capitalizes when you get the chance,” Scheifele says. “So they’re a fun line to play against. They’ve got lots of skill, they play hard.”

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