WASHINGTON - Even the usually stoic Peter Laviolette cracked a smile. His Nashville Predators sewed up a playoff berth Saturday by beating the Capitals, so there was something to be happy about.
"It was a good reaction," Laviolette said. "I always think it's a little bit more meaningful when you earn the win and you earn the two points and the right to get in."
The Predators long ago were assured of being a playoff team, the result of a turnaround season thanks to the return of goaltender Pekka Rinne, the hiring of Laviolette and the maturation of a blue-line led by captain Shea Weber.
Now they can set their sights on the Presidents' Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs. If they falter, they could fall as far as third in the Central Division with the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks not far behind.
"Everybody in our division wins every night," Laviolette said. "We've got to keep winning, we've got to keep playing."
Sunday's 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames ended a four-game winning streak and five-game point streak for the Predators, who host the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday. But the Predators weren't thrilled with their play even as the points piled up.
"We've been working hard and haven't really gotten the results we wanted, but I think the key is just to stick to what we've been doing," said forward Filip Forsberg, a candidate for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year. "We've been doing a really good job all year with that. That's the biggest key and I think that we kind of got back on track here."
For the Predators, on track means an aggressive forecheck and tight defence built around Weber and partner Roman Josi. Weber missed two games over the weekend with what the team was calling a lower-body injury.
"Well, he's day-to-day," Laviolette said Saturday when asked how concerned he was about Weber's injury. "Any time we've got players out of the lineup, we're not happy about it. We want all our guys healthy and available."
That's not the case right now. In addition to Weber, Nashville has been without winger James Neal since he suffered an upper-body injury March 12 and forward Eric Nystrom (lower body) since March 3.
The Predators have still managed to go 5-2-1 in Neal's absence to reach 102 points and reclaim first place in the Central. The Blues are just three points back with two games in hand and the Blackhawks six points back with two games in hand.
So as the Predators celebrated a victory in Washington and returning to the playoffs after a one-year absence, players also know the final five games are meaningful.
"That's obviously what you strive for all year, is to be able to put yourself in the position like that and get into the playoffs," former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Cody Franson said. "We've put ourselves in a good position. ...
"Now it's about maintaining the way we're playing right now and continuing to improve."
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