<
>

Historic game for Laviolette as Predators host Leafs

Peter Laviolette will reach a milestone Thursday night, becoming just the second American-born coach to work 1,000 games behind an NHL bench when his Nashville Predators host the Toronto Maple Leafs at Bridgestone Arena.

More important to Laviolette and his players is that his team celebrate the occasion by moving closer to a Western Conference playoff berth with a win over a Toronto team making an unexpected run at an Eastern Conference postseason appearance.

Nashville (39-26-11) has played some of its best hockey down the stretch, winning seven of its last nine games to keep pace with the equally hot St. Louis Blues and run away from the Los Angeles Kings in a race for playoff spots.

One of the Predators' rare losses occurred Tuesday night in Boston, where the Predators fell two goals down before the first period ended and fell 4-1 to the desperate Bruins.

"We made mistakes early on that gave them the lead, and from there we were chasing the game," Laviolette said. "I thought we got better as the game went on, but I thought they jumped us in the first."

Nashville players weren't taking the bait of fatigue as an excuse, perhaps because the schedule down the stretch is unrelenting. The Predators are playing five games in seven days this week with two back-to-backs, capping the week with a potential third-place showdown Sunday in St. Louis that occurs about 24 hours after they finish a home game Saturday with Minnesota.

"Not that being tired is an excuse, because every game is important down the stretch, but I think it took us a period to get into it, which isn't going to cut it," defenseman Ryan Ellis said.

While Nashville was lamenting a missed opportunity, Toronto (36-24-15) took advantage of a home game against Florida, winning 3-2 to stay in third in the Atlantic Division, a point ahead of Boston. The Maple Leafs have confounded the experts in Year 2 of their rebuild under coach Mike Babcock, jumping way ahead of schedule.

The arrival of rookie Auston Matthews has jumped the learning curve, to be sure. Matthews scored his 35th goal against the Panthers, breaking Wendel Clark's franchise record for most goals by a freshman.

"Just to be in the same sentence as a guy like Wendel Clark is obviously a big honor," the 19-year-old Matthews said.

Not that Matthews has been the only fresh face making waves for Toronto. Mitch Marner's 40 assists match a franchise mark for rookies, while William Nylander has scored in 12 straight games, a new rookie record for the Leafs.

The big news for Toronto prior to puck drop will be the status of starting goalie Frederik Andersen, who was knocked out of a 5-2 loss in Buffalo on Saturday with a head injury. Backup Curtis McElhinney filled in against Florida, stopping 25 shots, but it appears Andersen will be in net if cleared to play.

The Predators will enter this game a point back of St. Louis for third in the Central Division, thanks to the Blues' 3-1 win Wednesday night at Arizona. Finishing third means a first-round series with skidding Minnesota, as opposed to one against the Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks.