Rinne, Predators Hold off Blues to End Losing Streak, Take First in Central Division

Pekka Rinne stopped 29 of 30 shots, and the Nashville Predators defeated the St. Louis Blues by a 2-1 final on Wednesday night at Scottrade Center. The victory comes as the Preds return from the Christmas Break and wipes out their three-game winless skid to overtake the Blues for first place in the Central Division with 49 points.

It’s the second time this season Nashville has gone on the road to defeat the Blues, allowing just one goal to their division rival over those two contests, not to mention starting off a stretch of three games in four days against Central opponents with a win.

“Just coming off those couple days, it’s tough; I don’t think you let your guard down on purpose, but maybe it takes a kick in the rear end to get going,” Predators forward Craig Smith said. “It’s not always going to be perfect, and I thought we dealt with it in a good fashion. We came in and made some corrections, [Rinne] stood on his head and gave us a chance to win the game.”

After withstanding an early flurry, it was Smith who redirected a Roman Josi shot past Jake Allen for his 13th tally of the season to give the Preds a 1-0 lead after 20 minutes of play.

Nashville doubled up that lead in the second stanza when Calle Jarnkrok one-timed a feed from Filip Forsberg and wired it over the shoulder of Allen for a 2-0 advantage.

Vladimir Sobotka ended Rinne’s shutout bid with less than seven minutes remaining in regulation, but that was as close as the Blues got to stealing a point, giving Nashville their 22nd win of the season.

Rinne was one shot through traffic away from his fourth shutout of the season, but it was exactly the performance the Preds needed from their ace to get them back in the win column.

“You don’t want to get stuck in those streaks,” Rinne said. “It can be really hard to get out of those. We talked about it before the game, and I think the break was a good timing for us. We had a little bit of a chance to just [sit] back and relax and spend some time with the families, but we knew coming into tonight it was a big game and we didn’t want to [lose] four in a row.”

Better Than Before:

With the way Craig Smith has been performing during the 2017-18 regular season, it was only going to be a matter of time before he made it official.

In the first period against the St. Louis Blues, Smith reached up to deflect Roman Josi’s point shot past Jake Allen. His 13th goal in his 35th game, the Preds 28-year-old forward officially bested the goal total he put forth in the 2016-17 season (12 in 78 games).

In a sense, the tally seemed to officially say Smith’s bounce-back campaign is officially a go.

“The most noticeable thing for me with Craig, from day one [of this season] is his work ethic and his relentless pursuit of the puck,” Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “He’s turning things over and making things happen. Kevin [Fiala] is playing really well right now [on Smith’s line], the addition of Kyle Turris, all of that just adds to the mix of Craig having a strong start this year.”

Following three consecutive seasons with 21 or more goals, the winger saw his total fall to 12 last year. He’s not interested in seeing that happen again.

“His speed and his intensity on the ice is just unbelievable,” Josi said of Smith. “Every shift he’s out there, he works extremely hard and you can see it. He’s got a lot of speed, he’s going to those areas – like tonight, he gets a tip goal and he’s going to the front of the net, so he’s been unbelievable for us all year.”

First in the Central:

Nearing the halfway point of the season, St. Louis and Nashville have traded punches and turns atop the Central Division standings. On Wednesday, their second meeting of the season was again billed as an opportunity to sit in first in the division for at least a night.

“It’s a tough division, and it’s hard such a hard League,” Josi said. “It’s hard to win games, so we’re definitely pleased with being in the top, but it’s so tight. You can’t really look at the standings too much, you just have to focus on the next game… and we know that, so we’re going to keep working and keep getting better.”

The Blues and Predators finished third and fourth, respectively, in the Central last season and faced off in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Nashville has never won a Central Division crown.

Notes:

Ryan Ellis (non-roster injury) participated in the team’s morning skate in St. Louis. Anthony Bitetto, Cody McLeod and Miikka Salomaki were scratched for Nashville in Wednesday’s game.

Filip Forsberg skated in his 300th career game Wednesday night in St. Louis.

The Predators begin a home-and-home series with the Minnesota Wild on Friday at the Xcel Energy Center before returning home to skate in their final contest of the 2017 calendar year.