Scoring has been one of the Nashville Predators' weaknesses this season, but they could receive a much-needed boost with one of their top offensive producers ready to return for the first time in nearly two years.
Forward Steve Sullivan is expected to return to the Predators' lineup on Saturday night when they open a home-and-home series against his former team - the Chicago Blackhawks.
Nashville (18-19-3) reached the playoffs for a fourth straight time last season, but hasn't been playing like a contender lately, sitting fourth in the Central Division with 39 points - 12 behind second-place Chicago (22-9-7).
Contributing to its overall struggles has been an offense that ranks among the league's worst with 99 goals.
Although they scored just seven times during a five-game losing streak, the Predators reeled off five unanswered goals to overcome an early deficit for a 5-3 home victory over Pittsburgh on Thursday.
It was just the fifth time this season that Nashville totaled at least five goals, and the first such effort since a 5-2 win at Carolina on Nov. 23.
Getting Sullivan - a two-time 30-goal scorer - back should provide the Predators' struggling offense with a lift.
The right wing has 228 goals and 349 assists in 723 career games, but has been sidelined for the Predators' last 153 contests due to a troublesome back that's required two disc operations.
Sullivan, who hasn't played since Feb. 22, 2007, recognizes that it will take time for him to resume his offensive success.
"My teammates know how it feels when you're out a week or 10 days, and they know how hard it is to come back in and be productive. They know it won't be overnight," Sullivan told the Predators' official Web site. "I'm not going to be the same player, production-wise, as I was when I left."
Sullivan finished 2006-07 with 22 goals and 38 assists to reach the 60-point plateau for the seventh straight season.
He posted career highs in goals (34) and points (75) in 2000-01 for the Blackhawks, with whom he spent parts of five seasons before being dealt to the Predators in February 2004. Sullivan has eight goals and 25 points in 26 career games against his former team.
The Predators are 2-4-1 against the Blackhawks since Dec. 19, 2007, but both wins have come in the last three meetings and by shootout, most recently 3-2 in Chicago on Oct. 13.
Chicago enters having lost three of its last five following a franchise-record nine-game winning streak.
After averaging 4.2 goals in their previous 15 games, the Blackhawks were limited to Brian Campbell's seventh goal of the season in a 2-1 loss at Colorado on Thursday despite owning a 44-32 shots advantage.
"We weren't sharp around their net," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, whose team opened its current three-game road trip with Tuesday's 6-0 win at Phoenix. "They were the harder working team."
One bright spot for Chicago, however, was the return of second-year right wing Patrick Kane. Tops on the Blackhawks with 42 points, Kane missed the last two games with a right ankle sprain, but notched his team-leading 26th assist on Thursday.
Nikolai Khabibulin made 30 saves in the loss, but it's likely that Cristobal Huet will be in net Saturday.
Huet has won seven of his last nine overall starts (7-1-1) behind a 1.82 goals-against average, and is 3-0-2 with a 1.81 GAA in five career appearances versus Nashville. He was in net for the loss to the Predators in October.