The Nashville Predators entered the NHL's All-Star weekend as possibly the league's hottest team.
While the break may have come at a less than opportune time for the surging Predators, they'll look to pick up right where they left off Tuesday night.
Nashville tries for a fifth consecutive victory overall and a fifth win in the last six meetings with the Minnesota Wild when the teams face off at Xcel Energy Center.
Starting with a 2-1 shootout win over Minnesota (24-18-7) on Dec. 28, Nashville (30-16-4) has gone an NHL-best 12-2-0 to climb into third place in the Central Division and fifth in the highly-competitive Western Conference. The Predators have outscored opponents 42-24 during that stretch.
Represented by defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber along with center Craig Smith at last weekend's All-Star festivities, Nashville is one of six teams in the West with at least 60 points - four of which play in the Central.
"It's almost the four best teams in the whole NHL in this division. It shows how good a division we have," goaltender Pekka Rinne said. "Every year, we've been seventh-eighth-ninth, on the bubble, fighting for a spot. Now, the deeper we go, the more fun it gets."
Nashville, which leapfrogged Chicago in the standings after beating the host Blackhawks 3-1 last Tuesday for its fourth win a row, now sits just three points behind conference-leading Detroit.
"We've come a long way in the last month or so. We fly under the radar in this division," said center Mike Fisher, who scored a goal versus Chicago and has 12 points in his last 10 games.
"But we play solid and consistent. And Rinne, he's been unbelievable. When we're playing with leads, he shuts the door."
Rinne, who made 34 saves through overtime in last month's win over the Wild, has a 1.34 goals-against average and .957 save percentage during his franchise-record nine-game personal winning streak. He's 4-1-0 with a 1.18 GAA in his last five appearances against Minnesota, though the lone loss was a 3-2 defeat at Xcel Energy Center on Nov. 23.
While the Wild didn't enter the break with nearly as much momentum as the Predators, they're coming off a pair of impressive wins. Three days after prevailing 5-2 over Dallas, Minnesota snapped an 0-9-2 road skid with a 3-2 victory over Colorado last Tuesday. The Wild also climbed into eighth place in the West - in position to earn their first playoff birth in four years.
"That's where we're at right now for sure, and that was the message this morning," coach Mike Yeo told the team's official website following Monday's practice.
"This is a fun time to be a hockey player. When you come to the rink and you get to play a game and it matters. Every day it matters. We should all be well rested here. It was a nice, long break. We have to feel good about where we're at this point right now. So let's take advantage and let's get excited about this."
Minnesota captain Mikko Koivu (upper-body injury) and fellow forward Guillaume Latendresse (post-concussion syndrome) both skated in Monday's practice but there is currently no timetable for either to return.
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