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Predators-Penguins Preview

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The Pittsburgh Penguins are picking the right time to have not only their most impressive stretch of the season, but arguably the best the entire league has seen over the past few weeks.

Sometimes it just takes a little while to get going.

The Penguins have made falling behind a habit lately before turning on the jets, a pattern they'd like to abandon as they try to move closer to locking up a playoff spot in Thursday night's visit from the Nashville Predators.

Pittsburgh (43-25-8) has outscored opponents 37-22 in winning nine of its past 10 games, going from the postseason bubble to near-lock status with six games left. Any combination of four points gained by the Penguins or lost by Detroit will wrap up a 10th straight playoff berth.

They've been making it awfully difficult on themselves, though. Pittsburgh has given up the first goal in six of its last seven games, bouncing back to win five of those. Tuesday's hole was the deepest yet, but the Penguins dug out of a 3-0 first-period deficit to beat Buffalo 5-4 in a shootout.

Only Washington (21) has won more games when allowing the first goal than Pittsburgh (17).

''For some unknown reason it keeps happening,'' said rookie winger Tom Kuhnhackl, whose short-handed goal late in the second tied it before Nick Bonino's shorty 24 seconds later gave the Penguins the lead. ''We find ourselves down one or two goals, today three goals down. That can't happen as we get closer to the playoffs.''

A few weeks removed from a wild card being the best-case scenario, Pittsburgh is a point away from the New York Rangers in the race for home-ice advantage in the first round.

The Predators (39-25-13) will start on the road if they qualify but are closer to punching their postseason ticket, needing just a win Thursday to ensure they'll finish ahead of ninth-place Colorado.

Their first two attempts didn't go so well, though. They fell behind 3-0 after 12 minutes in a 4-3 home loss to the Avalanche on Tuesday, then gave up a pair of empty-netters in the final two minutes to account for Wednesday's 5-2 final in Dallas.

''We've had two games where we had a chance to clinch a playoff spot and couldn't do it," said Pekka Rinne, who started Wednesday after getting pulled early against the Avs. "So we just have to go to Pittsburgh and hopefully get it done (Thursday).''

That won't be easy against a Penguins team that has scored at least four goals in six of its last nine games, and it could be more difficult if Ryan Ellis can't go. The defenseman scored the first short-handed goal of his career Wednesday but left in the second period after taking a puck off the side of the head.

James Neal has been doing his part heading into a visit to the city he called home for parts of four years, piling up seven goals and four assists over his last eight games. Neal scored a third-period goal against the Penguins on Oct. 24 before Phil Kessel's overtime tally gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 win.

The Penguins have won six of seven in this series with Sidney Crosby totaling three goals and seven assists. Marc-Andre Fleury has been outstanding in the past six meetings, posting a .948 save percentage and allowing one goal or none in five of those.

Rinne has lost five straight to Pittsburgh behind an .870 save percentage.