NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A potential game-breaker is waiting in the wings as the race heats up for the final Western Conference playoff spots.
Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne, who's been out since Oct. 22 because of an infection that set into his hip after surgery, is back on his skates and into a conditioning stint this weekend for the Predators' affiliate in the AHL, the Milwaukee Admirals.
Rinne was scheduled to play Friday night at home against the Iowa Stars and might play Sunday afternoon in Grand Rapids.
The 31-year-old Finn is a difference-maker.
He's been the Predators' workhorse goalie for several seasons -- he played 43 of the team's 48 regular-season games during the lockout season.
In 2013-14, he played in only nine games (4-4-1) before being sidelined, causing the Predators to turn to Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec before acquiring Devan Dubnyk from Edmonton.
None were really the solution, though Hutton has emerged as the most reliable of the bunch. He's started 11 of the team's last 13 games and is 7-2-2 in that span.
But Nashville has done poorly in a category in which it's almost always proficient. It has allowed 175 goals so far this season, among the league's worst teams.
If Rinne should pass his playing test this weekend and is fast-tracked to NHL action, then you can expect that defensive number to improve.
Though the entire team won't be able to change its stripes this late in the season, Rinne's assets of quickness and filling most of the net could well cause his teammates to start playing better. Even a marginal improvement in other areas of their game, given Nashville's history of diligent work and checking, could pay big dividends.
In January, during an off-day in Winnipeg before one of the team's games against the Jets, Preds coach Barry Trotz didn't try to disguise how different the team has been this season minus Rinne.
Trotz figured the No. 1 goalie's absence has been worth somewhere between 15 and 20 goals against -- to the bad side, of course -- so it's not hard to do the math on what a little bit of improvement there could mean.
Still, the team is just two points back of Winnipeg and four back of the eighth-place Dallas Stars heading into today's action.
Nobody's sure Rinne could be ready next week. There have been suggestions it could take several weeks. But a healthy Rinne has the talent to turn those numbers on their ears rather quickly.
BRING IT: The Jets' push for a playoff spot will see them go through a blistering pace of 21 games in the next 42 days.
"Now you like it," said Jets coach Paul Maurice. "For me, at this time of year, let's play every second day. You get into a rhythm. Different situation, because I'm a new guy, but if you're into February or March, your teaching, for the most part, is done. Everybody knows what we're trying to do and you're making little adjustments to the lineup team by team. But every second day is good."
SOME O, TOO, PLEASE: Maurice was asked Friday what he wanted from his fourth line, now featuring Jim Slater between James Wright and Chris Thorburn.
"Time and energy," he said. "We want them to be able to get enough minutes over the course of a game that you can keep your top-end guys fresh. I'd like energy in the offensive zone... not to be just defensive specialists. I want these guys to try to start scoring some goals. There's some speed down there and certainly some size with whoever we put in.
"I'd like them to feel like they're not just out there to hold water. They're out there to push the pace and try to score and be a difference in the game."