Avalanche-Predators Preview

The Nashville Predators are back at work ready to prove the best start in franchise history is no fluke, even with goaltender Pekka Rinne still sidelined.

And they want a fast start coming off the All-Star break, beginning Tuesday night against the visiting Colorado Avalanche.

"It's very critical," forward James Neal said Monday. "I think everyone's got the same mindset coming back from the break. We want to gain ground, and you want to make up as many points as you can. ... We've got to be ready here, and ... I think everyone just kind of recharged, really got their energy back and ready to go."

Well, not everyone got to rest over the long All-Star weekend.

Coach Peter Laviolette and his assistants worked the game and got the win with Team Toews in Columbus along with defenseman Shea Weber, who won the hardest shot competition with a 108.5 mph blast, and rookie Filip Forsberg who scored the first goals by a Predator in an All-Star game.

The Predators (30-10-5) lead the NHL with a .722 winning percentage. Anaheim has a league-best 68 points - three ahead of Nashville, which has two games in hand on the Ducks. Nashville has gotten at least a point in 11 of the last 12 games and also leads the Central Division at 12-3-2, matching the wins it got in the division all last season.

Laviolette tried to help his Predators get back up to speed Monday by pushing them through practice and drills quickly.

"It gets harder and harder," Laviolette said. "The more is at stake as the season winds on here. The teams always will be fighting for something now. The playoffs, once you get through January and reach the halfway point of February, it starts to really narrow in on the playoff picture and what's happening around the league. So it doesn't get any easier than that."

Rinne skated Monday, but the league's top winning goalie's return from an injured knee remains unchanged. He hurt his knee Jan. 13 and still is expected to miss between three and five weeks. The Predators managed three points in three games without him before the break.

Carter Hutton got his first win in net for Nashville this season with a 4-3 victory over Washington on Jan. 16 and just missed a second in a 2-1 overtime loss at Montreal last Tuesday.

The Predators also recalled Marek Mazanec from Milwaukee of the AHL on Monday. Laviolette declined to say whether Hutton or Mazanec will be in net against Colorado (20-18-10). Hutton is 1-4-3 this season.

"He definitely deserves better," center Mike Fisher said. "He's played some good games where we couldn't score in front of him. We know he's a good goaltender. We'll focus on what we need to do as a team no matter who's back there."

Nashville leads the league allowing 2.24 goals per game and is ninth in scoring with an average of 2.96.

The Predators take a seven-game winning streak on home ice into this game, and another victory will tie the franchise record set Jan. 6-Feb. 8, 2007. Then Nashville hits the road for three straight at St. Louis, Colorado and Pittsburgh as part of a tough stretch of four games in six nights.

Colorado went into the break with a 3-2 shootout home victory over Boston on Wednesday. The Avalanche are 7-3-2 over their last 12 games, sitting in 10th in the Western Conference and three points out of the last playoff spot.

"Everyone's mindset for this rest and this break we have, it's only going to bring more excitement when we come back," said Ryan O'Reilly, who has two goals in the last three games. "I think we have been playing good hockey, and if we keep this up, we're in a great spot."

Coach Patrick Roy announced that defenseman Erik Johnson, fourth on the Avalanche with 12 goals, will miss three to eight weeks after he had arthroscopic knee surgery Monday.

Forsberg and Gabriel Bourque each had a goal and an assist in a 3-0 win at Colorado on Dec. 9.

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