By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- With all the preseason hype regarding Central Division teams like the Blues, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche and even the Minnesota Wild, the Nashville Predators -- with new coach Peter Laviolette -- were left on the back-burner as far as contenders.
But after jumping out of the gates with an 8-3-1 record, good for 17 points through 12 games, the Predators have caught the attention of foes. At least their foe Saturday has the Predators' full attention.
The Blues (9-3-1, 17 points), winners of seven in a row, are fully aware that the Predators and their open-style game has been a different change from the years when Barry Trotz was coach.
The puck drops at 7 p.m. on FSN and KMOX 1120-AM.
"They're always a well-structured team," Blues center Paul Stastny said of the Predators. "Doesn't really matter who their coach is. I'm sure they have a lot of elements from last year. They're kind of force to be reckoned with. (Pekka) Rinne is fully healthy and when you have a solid No. 1 goaltender that's healthy, you can be in every game."
Not only do the Blues, who are looking for their longest winning streak since winning nine in a row in 2002, want to keep their game trending in the right direction, they look at games within the division with a different mindset.
"You've got to beat division rivals," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "Every point is going to be crucial, especially down the road. You don't want to be clawing and scraping away at the end. You get the points now and make every matchup count."
Coach Ken Hitchcock agreed.
"It's awfully early to be gauging first place battles and all that stuff, but it's a divisional opponent," Hitchcock said. "I look at it from anytime we're playing a divisional opponent, we're trying to keep everybody underneath us. That's as important as anything. To me, it's the same thing. Division opponent, good team; seems like you say that about every team in the Central Division. Just doesn't seem to be much difference between any of the teams in the Central right now. Anybody can beat anybody and anybody has beat anybody. We're looking at it as any points we can get in these division games is really, really important.
"We've coached against Peter quite a bit and they play the way that Peter wants them to play. It's pressure and pressure in all three zones. If you're going to beat them, you've got to get beyond the pressure. You're going to have to be really good at supporting the puck. You're going to have to really be sharp because they force a lot of turnovers, especially in the neutral zone and the O-zone. If you're not sharp, you're going to end up on your heels like a lot of teams have this year. They've made big changes up front especially."
The Predators, who practiced Friday at Scottrade Center, did not have a morning skate Saturday.
The team received some bad news Friday in regards to injured forward Viktor Stalberg, who was on a conditioning assignment with the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League. Stalberg, who was rehabbing a lower-body injury that occurred during training camp, sustained what Admirals coach Dean Evason told reporters after their game Friday was a right knee injury and that "it's not good."
Stalberg was expected to leave the Admirals and rejoin the Predators on Saturday.
Rinne is expected to be the starting goalie. He will be opposed by the Blues' Brian Elliott, who is 5-2-0 with a 1.71 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in seven career games against Nashville.
"They've started off pretty hot, so we definitely have familiarity with each other as teams," Elliott said. "Saturday night in this barn, it's going to be a good atmosphere that's for sure.
"We haven't seen them. We don't really know all the changes they've made. They made a couple personnel changes, but their base of the team is still the same."
- - -
The Blues will add Chris Porter into the lineup tonight, and he will play alongside Patrik Berglund and Joakim Lindstrom.
The Blues are 4-1-0 when Porter is in the lineup, and right now, Hitchcock is trying to find a player who can fill the role on that line.
"We miss his energy. We need his energy and we need his grit," Hitchcock said of Porter. "He's fast, he's physical. We've tried a lot of combinations there and quite frankly, it hasn't worked, but it does work with Ports in the lineup. When we looked at the five games that he's played, all five games we've played really well in. I think there's some pretty good information there that he has a major factor in the way the line plays. He brings a lot of work ethic, determination and grit to the line and we want to see that."
Porter, who sat out against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, said it can be tough going in and out of the lineup.
"Yeah, it can be, but you always have to stay sharp," Porter said. "Injuries happen. Teams switch lineups. I've gotten used to it over the years. It's not something you want to get used to, but it's something you adapt to."
Porter calls his game very simplistic.
"Keep it simple, bring energy for myself, try and create some room for Bergie and whoever I'm out there with," he said. "Nothing changes in my game, but I just want to contribute to what we've got going. I'm just going to try and create some room for him.
"I can't change the way I play. I just try and play physical, create energy and be good defensively. Hopefully get on the scoresheet a little bit, too."
But Hitchcock said Porter has the ability to bring more.
"I think he dumbs it down too much at times because when you're in and out of the lineup, you don't want to get caught on the ice," Hitchcock said. "We're constantly jabbing at him to do a little more. He's capable of it because the way he plays in the American League is not the way he plays here. He plays with confidence with the puck. He does the same thing in practice and that's what we're looking for in the games. You kind of get where he's coming from, but he has an element that the players really like it when he's in the lineup. He provides that steeliness that we need more of on our third and fourth lines."
- - -
Tonight's matchup marks the No. 1 (Predators) and No. 4 (Blues) teams in 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio.
The Predators lead the NHL at 1.85, while the Blues come in at 1.43, but Hitchcock feels it needs to be better.
"I'm not so sure we're playing that great 5-on-5 yet," Hitchcock said. "We've got a long ways to go to get better. They're quite frankly playing better than we are 5-on-5. That's part of the game that we've got to get picking up. We're in and out too much. I think our players recognize that. We're winning hockey games, but I think every player on that team knows that we can play better 5-on-5 hockey. If we do that, then we're going to really help ourselves. ... Our transition from 'O' to 'D' and from 'D' to 'O,' we've got to get better at."
- - -
Right wing T.J. Oshie took to the ice Saturday prior to the morning skate and worked on skating, shooting, puck-handling. It's the first known session on the ice for Oshie, who sustained a concussion at Dallas on Oct. 28. He's missed five games since and will not play tonight.
Hitchcock said Oshie is still "a ways away. He's certainly not ready to join us. Slow. It will be a while yet."
- - -
The Blues' probable lineup:
Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-David Backes
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Chris Porter-Patrik Berglund-Joakim Lindstrom
Steve Ott-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Barret Jackman-Ian Cole
Brian Elliott will get the start in goal. Jake Allen is the backup.
Healthy scratches include Magnus Paajarvi and Jordan Leopold. T.J. Oshie (concussion) is out indefinitely.
- - -
The Predators' probable lineup:
Filip Forsberg-Mike Ribeiro-James Neal
Matt Cullen-Derek Roy-Craig Smith
Colin Wilson-Calle Jarnkrok-Olli Jokinen
Taylor Beck-Paul Gaustad-Eric Nystrom
Roman Josi-Shea Weber
Ryan Ellis-Mattias Ekholm
Victor Bartley-Seth Jones
Pekka Rinne will start in goal. Carter Hutton is the the backup.
Forward Gabriel Bourque is the healthy scratch. Forwards Mike Fisher (Achilles) and Viktor Stalberg (lower body) are out with injuries, and defenseman Anton Volchenkov is serving the final game of a four-game suspension.