Collectively, the Nashville Predators have been much better since their return from the All-Star break. They have won seven of 10, have gotten back above .500 and have moved within striking distance of the Western Conference’s top eight teams.
If there is one player who personifies that resurgence, it’s Joel Ward.
A full-time NHL player for the first time, the 28-year-old forward admitted that he embraced the opportunity to leave behind the game that arose when the Predators had a week off around the league’s showcase event.
“I got away from the rink and just hung out with some friends from back home,” Ward said. “It was actually a good getaway for me, just to get away from the rink and not think about hockey so much. I came back refreshed a little bit.”
His fitness, as well as that of his teammates, will be tested this week when Nashville plays four times in the next six days, beginning Monday against Ottawa (7 p.m., Sommet Center), which has won four straight.
“We’ve got a really big test,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Ottawa is probably the hottest team right now coming into our building. … We’ve got to be really focused.”
It was Ward who scored Nashville’s first post-All Star goal when he hit the net 1:10 into a 5-3 victory at Vancouver on Jan. 28. Last Tuesday, he had his second multi-goal game of the season and twice got the Predators within one during a 5-3 loss to Detroit. Saturday against Boston he had a shorthanded assist.
In all, he has five points (three goals, two assists) in the last 10 games, nearly twice what he had over the previous 10.
“We were on Joel,” Trotz said. “For whatever reason, either the schedule caught up to him or whatever, he got away from skating. He was just standing, he didn’t seem like he had a lot of energy.
“He actually sat out a couple games right before the All-Star break just because he wasn’t using his feet and getting to people.”
That’s not the case anymore.
He scored his second goal against Detroit when he went hard to the net and used his 6-foot-1, 220-pound frame to shield off a defenseman as he shot. His assist Saturday came after he carried the puck all the way through the neutral zone, cut to the middle of the offensive end and eventually delivered a pass to David Legwand who found the mark with a one-timer.
“He carried a couple guys with him there through the zone,” Legwand said. “That was a big goal, a key one.”
Ward’s NHL experience prior to this season was a mere 11 games with Minnesota during the 2006-07 season.
He played more than 60 contests in the AHL each of the past three seasons, but the physical toll exacted in his 43 appearances prior to the All-Star break was something completely different for him.
“Obviously, just the caliber of hockey, all the good teams you’re playing against and all the players – definitely you have to pick your game up at all times,” he said. “It is a tough grind, but it’s more of a mental thing, I think. That’s why the break was good to refresh and to start over.”
Predators vs. Ottawa
Tonight, 7 p.m.