Alexander Radulov's return was an unexpected boost to the Predators' offense at the end of the season. (PHOTO: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Nashville Predators 2011-12 Year In Review (In Review), Pt. 3

Nashville Predators 2011-12 Year In Review (In Review), Part 3: February and March

Four months into the Nashville Predators’ 2011-12 season, the team was flying high after compiling a record of 11-2-0 in January. Pekka Rinne was at the top of his game, the team was just behind Detroit and St. Louis in the tougher-than-ever Central Division, and the team was beginning to look forward to the playoffs. But there were some big changes in store before the end of the regular season.

FEBRUARY (6-4-3)

After a stellar January in which the Predators relied on workhorse goalie Pekka Rinne to push them forward, the team faltered at the start of February. The pain of dropping four of the first five games (4-1 to Philadelphia, 4-3 to Vancouver, 4-3 to Ottawa, and 4-3 to Boston) was eased  both by two points for shootout losses and by the other game being a 3-1 win against Central Division-leading St. Louis.

Hal Gill provided much-needed size and experience for the Nashville defensive corps. (PHOTO: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

On the 17th, GM David Poile pulled the trigger on the first of a series of moves to set the team up for its best possible playoff run. Poile shipped Blake Geoffrion to the Montreal Canadiens – the franchise three generations of Geoffrion men had played for – along with minor-leaguer Robert Slaney and a 2nd-round draft pick in 2012. In return the Predators received a conditional 5th-round pick in 2013 and veteran defenseman Hal Gill, who was due to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Gill’s presence bolstered the team as he played alongside rookie Roman Josi. The team lost to Detroit 2-1 on the day Gill was acquired but picked up points in each of the next five games as he gave the top pair of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter some much-needed rest. First the Preds beat two teams that had given them fits earlier in the season, Dallas (3-2) and Vancouver (4-1). They dropped their first of the season against high-flying St. Louis in a shootout (3-2), but Shea Weber’s two goals helped to crush San Jose 6-2 and Pekka Rinne picked up his league-leading 35th win of the season against Los Angeles, 2-1.

Paul Gaustad’s faceoff prowess bolstered a weakness of Nashville’s at a crucial time in the season. (PHOTO: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports)

Long-time Predator Jerrod Smithson played his last game with the Preds in that loss to the Blues; on February 24th he was traded to Florida for a 6th-round pick in 2012. Then Poile made two trades on deadline day, the 27th. First he dealt that conditional 5th-round pick back to Montreal along with a 2nd-round pick in 2013 for Sergei Kostitsyn’s older brother, winger Andrei Kostitsyn. Then he swapped the Preds’ top pick in 2012 with Buffalo, who sent over gritty center Paul Gaustad and a 4th-round pick in 2013. Like Gill, both players were scheduled to become UFAs at season’s end.

With Anders Lindback in net but without its new acquisitions on the ice, the team lost 4-3 in Carolina to close out the month. The bright spot in an otherwise dull month was the Preds’ 5-0-2 record at home, bringing them up to 21-7-5 after a rocky start in October.

MARCH (8-6-1)

Mediocre as February was for the Preds, they picked up enough points to stay competitive in the Central thanks to Chicago’s 9-game losing streak. And the players David Poile acquired in trades had bolstered the team’s weak spots, giving fans hope that the team could make a push for home ice in the playoffs – and maybe even that elusive first division title.

Newly acquired Andrei Kostitsyn scored his 100th career NHL goal as Nashville beat Florida 3-1. Then Patric Hornqvist bagged his 20th of the season in a 5-4 loss to Los Angeles, a game which also featured Mike Fisher’s 400th career NHL point. The team easily held off Colorado 4-2, thanks in part to a goal from Brandon Yip, who had been picked up off waivers from the Avalanche at the end of January. Sergei Kostitsyn assisted on two goals by brother Andrei in a 3-2 win over Detroit, and Andrei bagged the shootout winner as Nashville beat Phoenix 5-4.

Even with the Preds having won 4 out of 5 games and 8 out of 11, they still trailed both St. Louis and Detroit in the Central. Talk about the possible return of prodigal son Alexander Radulov began to swirl, and the team tried to cut out the noise to focus on one game at a time. That was a tough task, resulting in three losses (2-1 in a shootout at San Jose, 4-2 at Los Angeles, and 6-3 at home to Edmonton) and one win (3-1 at Anaheim) over the next four games. Finally, on March 21st, David Poile held a press conference announcing Radulov’s return to the team.

Poile described the Russian winger, who would play out the last year of the entry-level contract that was suspended when he fled to the KHL in 2008, as “the best player in the world not currently in the National Hockey League.” He made an immediate impact on the scoresheet, beating Marc-Andre Fleury in a game against Pittsburgh on the 22nd, but the Penguins won handily, 5-1.

The team appeared energized by Radulov’s return and ran off wins against Winnipeg (3-1) and Chicago (6-1) to finally move into second place in the Central Division ahead of Detroit. The only team ahead of them was St. Louis, but goalie Brian Elliott shut them out 3-0 in the next game to keep his team ahead of the Preds. But Nashville stepped up in the next game with a 4-1 win over Detroit, giving Coach Barry Trotz his 500th career NHL victory. They nearly came from behind to beat Chicago in the last game of the month, but the Hawks held on to win 5-4.

As the team headed to April with a record of 45-26-8, there was more experience and firepower on the roster than at just about any time in the franchise’s history. But with all the new additions the Predators’ chemistry was still unpredictable. The team was guaranteed a playoff berth, though which seed it would be was undetermined for the moment. The last three games of the regular season, scheduled for early April, would determine the pecking order in the West – and that’s where I’ll pick up tomorrow.

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4 of the Nashville Predators 2011-12 Year In Review (In Review).

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