Smith, Preds fullfilling potential early, top Panthers

Bucky Dent, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There were big expectations for Nashville Predators center Craig Smith before the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Mirroring his team, Smith didn't fulfill those expectations.
If the first six games of this year are any indication, Smith might be ready to fulfill his potential.
Snapping a 2-2 third period tie with his first goal, Smith helped Nashville improve to 3-1-0 on its five-game homestand Tuesday night with a 4-3 win over the Florida Panthers at Bridgestone Arena.
Shea Weber, Mike Fisher and Patric Hornqvist also tallied for the Predators (3-3-0), which scored more than three goals in a game for the first time this season. Pekka Rinne made 22 saves.
But the main story was Smith, who after scoring 14 goals as a rookie in 2011-12, slumped to four last year and wasn't reliable in his own zone. The 6-foot-1, 199-pound Smith is writing a different story so far this season with four points and a plus-3 rating.
"I thought he was really good tonight," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said of Smith. "He's been working hard and getting some bounces."
One of those came at 1:22 of the third, when he was in the right spot. Pouncing on the rebound of Gabriel Bourque's shot, Smith shoveled a backhander past Jacob Markstrom to put the Predators ahead to stay.
It was one of 14 shots Nashville fired in the final 20 minutes, giving it a 30-25 edge for the night. It's outshot its last three opponents -- Toronto, the New York Islanders and Florida -- by a combined 97-67.
"When you shoot the puck, things happen," Smith said. "Guys want to shoot the puck and that's great. There's a lot of funny goals out there."
Smith also created a goal for Fisher with a nice cross-ice pass from left to right. Fisher backhanded a short shot past Markstrom at 12:48 of the second period for a short-lived 2-1 Predators lead.
Fisher has noticed the difference in Smith.
"He's been shooting well and competing well," Fisher said. "He's been hard on the puck. He's doing a lot of good things."
Although Nashville leveled its record at .500 for the first time this year, Trotz wasn't completely happy with its execution at times. The Panthers owned territorial and shot advantages most of the night.
"It was a frustrating game," Trotz said. "It was the most sloppy we've been so far. It wasn't a real detailed effort on our part."
Florida (2-5-0) fell to 1-4-0 on the road and has allowed 28 goals. It produced some nice offensive sequences, such as Jonathan Huberdeau's third goal at 1:16 of the second as he sailed through the slot and beat Rinne with a pretty move to the stick side.
"He's a strong player and a quiet leader," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said of Huberdeau, last year's Calder Memorial Trophy winner.
Marcel Goc and Matt Gilroy also tallied for Florida, which opens a six-game homestand Thursday night against Boston.
Meanwhile, the Predators welcome Los Angeles to town that night. If the first six games are any indication, Smith will have an impact on the game's outcome.
"I've got to maintain it," he said of his good start. "I feel like I've had a good jump coming into the season. It feels good to get the first goal."
NOTES: Nashville C David Legwand played the 900th game of his NHL career, all with the Predators. Legwand was the team's first-ever draft pick, going second overall in 1998. ... Both teams are observing anniversary seasons. This is Florida's 20th year in the league and Nashville's 15th. The Panthers spoiled the Predators' home debut in 1998 with a 1-0 decision. ... Florida's fifth-round pick in June's draft, LW Chris Clapperton, has recorded 21 points -- six goals, 15 assists -- in his first 10 games with Blainville-Boisbriand of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. ... With D Seth Jones and C Filip Forsberg seeing regular ice time, Nashville is one of only two teams playing more than one teenager nightly. Buffalo uses three.

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