Strong goaltending has Predators poised for another playoff berth

Tuesday, April 5, 2011 at 11:46pm

It seemed appropriate that Tuesday’s game opened with a former Nashville Predators goalie in the opposing net.

That’s because — in a way — the 6-3 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers before 16,756 at Bridgestone Arena was a celebration of the Predators’ goaltending, which has been a cornerstone of the organization from its earliest days.

That commitment to and development of top-flight netminders has helped make the Predators the most consistently successful of the NHL’s four newest franchises (a group that includes Atlanta), as evidenced by the fact that they are poised to secure their sixth playoff berth in seven seasons. Nashville reaches the postseason with just one point or if Dallas loses one point the rest of the way.

“It was still a big one for us,” center Mike Fisher said. “We’re trying to move up and get that fourth spot, if we can. That being said, we were playing a team that was out of it so we wanted to find a way to get up, and we did.”

Pekka Rinne made 33 saves and won for the 32nd time, which tied his personal best set in 2009-10. Only Tomas Vokoun (36 in 2005-06 and 34 in 04-05) has more wins in a season among all Nashville goalies.

It was Rinne’s 62nd appearance of the season, the third highest total ever, also behind only Vokoun, by a Nashville goalie.

At times, particularly early and late, it seemed that his teammates left him out there alone to take a starring turn. Nashville was outshot 36-24 but eventually delivered an unusual amount of offensive support, which included two goals each from Sergei Kostitsyn and Jordin Tootoo. The six goals scored were a season-high.

A couple big saves early bought the offense time to come around, which it did when it scored twice in the final minute of the opening period to make it 3-0.

Rinne did not allow a goal until Thrashers forward Blake Wheeler scored the first of his two at 3:06 of the third period, 38 seconds after Kostitsyn’s second made it 5-0. Two more pucks got by Rinne in the final four minutes when coach Barry Trotz was confident that the outcome was certain.

“I wasn’t really concerned because I got away from matchups, defense pairings … just trying to spread the ice time,” Trotz said. “When we were up 6-1, I was trying to make sure no one was overextended.

“… They came out with a real good push right off the hop and we were on our heels a little bit. We sort of stabilized it, and then we got the first goal … and then we got those two quick ones at the end of the period.”

General Manager David Poile and his staff placed a premium on netminders beginning with the 1998 expansion draft, when they made Mike Dunham their featured selection.

The lineage includes Chris Mason, who started for the Thrashers in this contest but was chased after he allowed four goals on 13 shots in the first 22 minutes. It was an atypical performance for Mason, who was 58-43-12 in two stints with the Predators.

“We outshot them, outskated them and outplayed them,” Trashers center Nik Antropov said. “Then in a matter of minutes they got two goals at the end [of the first period]. … I thought we battled back a little bit, [but] you have to give them credit — especially their goalie. He stood on his head and got some really nice saves.”

That’s just the way it is with the Predators.

Briefly

• Kostitsyn now looks like a lock to finish the regular season as the team’s leading goal scorer. With two games remaining, he has 22, which is three more than second-place Patric Hornqvist.

However, there still exists the very real possibility that this will be just the third time in franchise history that no one scores at least 25.

Denis Arkhipov (2001-02) and Andreas Johansson (2002-03) each lead the team with 20.

• Kostitsyn also extended his current point streak to 10 games, which tied Steve Sullivan for the second-longest in franchise history.

Sullivan had a pair of 10-game streaks, the most recent in January to February 2007. J-P Dumont set the franchise record of 16 straight in 2007-08.

“We have all four lines playing very good hockey lately, and our line is scoring almost every game,” Kostitsyn said.

• Tootoo, who missed the previous game with an upper body injury, set career-highs with two goals and three points.

It took him until he was 28 and 407 career appearances to register his first multi-goal game. Oddly, though, he has five career goals in eight all-time appearances against the Thrashers.

“It was great to contribute offensively,” he said. “But the bottom line is we got the two points.”

• Taylor Beck and Michael Latta, a pair of third-round draft choices in 2009, signed amateur tryout contracts with the Milwaukee Admirals.

The two previously signed entry-level deals with the Predators and are set to officially become professionals next season. The amateur deals allow them to practice and play with Milwaukee for the remainder of this season.