Posted January 22, 2012 on AP on Fox
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The Nashville Predators' recent hot streak has helped create a four-team logjam atop the stacked Central Division as the All-Star break nears. The NHL-worst Columbus Blue Jackets are the odd team out of the race. Nashville seeks its fifth win over Columbus of 2011-12 when the teams conclude their season series Monday night at Bridgestone Arena. The Predators (28-16-4) have won seven of their last eight games after beating Chicago 5-2 at home Saturday. They're currently are in fourth place in the Central but sixth in the Western Conference. League-leading Detroit has the most points in the Central - one ahead of both St. Louis and Chicago - with the Predators five back. Nashville has won six of seven at home including four straight, and coach Barry Trotz feels the fans already seem in postseason form. "(Saturday) had a playoff feel," said Trotz, whose club has allowed two goals or fewer in seven of its last eight games. "I don't know if we came out with more intensity, but the building was ramped up from the get-go and that doesn't hurt the home team." Pekka Rinne made 20 saves and has won his last seven starts with a 1.43 goals-against average. Craig Smith scored on the power play Saturday for the Predators, who are 7 for 12 with the man advantage in five meetings with Columbus - going 4-0-1 in those matchups. Rinne has been in net for each game against the Blue Jackets and is 6-0-1 with a 2.41 GAA in his last seven starts versus Columbus. He made 38 saves to shut out the Blue Jackets 3-0 on Thursday, as Shea Weber, Mike Fisher and Martin Erat scored for Nashville. The Blue Jackets (13-28-6) tried to bounce back Saturday at Detroit, but couldn't hold a one-goal lead midway through the second period and eventually fell 3-2 in a shootout. Ryan Russell and Nikita Nikitin scored for Columbus, which has lost 13 of 17. "Paying the price, playing hard, just not getting the results we want,'' interim coach Todd Richards said. "We did some good things for about half of the game when we held them below 10 shots. We're playing hard as a group and we're playing for each other." The Blue Jackets have lost six of their last seven overall meetings versus the Predators, though their 4-3 overtime win Nov. 19 ended a 17-game losing streak in Nashville. The Predators defeated Columbus 6-5 at Bridgestone Arena on Dec. 22. Curtis Sanford has taken hold of the Blue Jackets' No. 1 goaltending job replacing the struggling Steve Mason. He's allowed two goals in each of his last three starts, including a 29-save performance in Saturday's loss. Sanford is 4-4-1 with a 3.18 lifetime GAA versus Nashville, including a 1-1-1 mark this season. It's unclear if Nikitin will be ready to play after being hit hard into the boards by Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg. Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter also may not play, as he's missed the last three games with an upper-body injury. Columbus captain Rick Nash has one goal and six assists versus Nashville this season, while Weber has one goal and seven assists against the Jackets in the season series.
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