NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Juuse Saros is developing into the goaltender that Nashville, and the young Finn is doing his best to carry the Predators into the playoffs.
Saros made 39 saves for his career-high 18th win this season, and the Predators beat the Florida Panthers 4-1 Monday night to hold onto their slim hold on the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central Division.
With the win, Saros improved to 13-4-1 in his last 18 starts. He has the most wins among NHL goalies since March 18 and helped the Predators stay two points ahead of Dallas by beating Florida for the first time this season in Nashville. Saros stopped the final 37 shots he faced.
“I think the consistency level he’s played with and to be ready mentally every night to play the way that he needs to play has been a real good growth step for him, and it’s been a huge step for our team,” Predators coach John Hynes said of Saros.
Nick Cousins scored the go-ahead goal in the second period. Yakov Trenin and Erik Haula each scored a goal in the third, and Mikael Granlund had a power-play goal for Nashville, which won its second straight.
“He was outstanding,” Cousins said.
Sam Bennett scored for Florida, which needed to beat Nashville in any fashion to clinch the seventh playoff berth in franchise history. The Panthers trail Carolina by two points for the top spot in the Central after being held to just one goal for for the first time since April 10 — a span of seven games where they went 5-1-1.
“They are playing for everything right now,” Florida defenseman Radko Gudas said. “Every game for them is a do or die game. We want to match their intensity. I thought we did for parts of the game, but we didn’t get it done today.”
Florida went up 1-0 when Anthony Duclair’s hot went off Bennett’s left foot on a delayed penalty at 4:49 of the first for his fourth goal in five games. But Nashville answered quickly when Granlund tipped Roman Josi’s shot and shoved in the rebound past Panthers goalie Chris Driedger’s right skate on the power play at 6:30.
The Panthers took the first six shots to open the second. But the Predators grabbed a 2-1 lead when Cousins’ snap shot beat Driedger off a pass from Erik Haula on Nashville’s first shot of the period.
Sergei Bobrovsky replaced Driedger with 4:55 left in the second, and the Panthers said Driedger would not return with a lower-body injury. Florida coach Joel Quenneville said after the game only that Driedger is day to day after the injury progressively worsened during the game.
Yet the Panthers couldn’t get the puck past Saros despite outshooting Nashville 22-5 in the period. Quenneville said Saros saw a lot of shots.
“Our shot selection was poor I thought, but the quality and the quantity wasn’t bad,” Quenneville said. “It was one of those nights where the efficiency would have been nice to get a couple of those or one of them at least to get us going there in that second to get us excited.”
Haula padded Nashville’s lead with a snap shot off a pass from Matt Duchene at 2:39 of the third, and Trenin made it 4-1 scoring in front of the crease with 9:12 left — about a minute or so after Dallas beat Carolina.
POWER PLAY DROUGHT ENDS
Prior to Granlund’s first period power-play goal, the Predators had not scored with the man-advantage in their previous nine games, going 0-23 over that span.
After struggling to score on the power play for most of the season, Nashville’s success rate improved with the emergence of rookie Eeli Tolvanen. On the season, six of Tolvanen’s 11 goals have come on the power play. He missed the first seven of the team’s nine-game stretch without a power-play goal due to a lower-body injury.
Nashville entered Monday with the NHL’s 25th best power play, connecting on 17.7 percent of its opportunities.
CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN
Josi’s assist tied him with Shea Weber for third on the team’s all-time points list with 443 (115 goals-328 assists).
These teams wrap up their season series Tuesday night with Nashville having a chance to even the season series.
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