The Sabres and Predators have had some memorable scraps over the years (remember Scott Nichol and Jaroslav Spacek?), and they renew their rivalry tonight at the Sommet Center. The big news in Nashville is that Pekka Rinne and Joel Ward are scheduled to see their first regular season action, and Rinne in particular has a high standard to live up to, based on what Dan Ellis has done in the first two games.
Follow after the jump for more on tonight's matchup...
Meet the Enemy
Die By The Blade is SB Nation's Buffalo Sabres blog (check out their team's season preview), and their breakdown of the game provides for caution; the Sabres appear to be skating well (outshooting opponents by a combined 74-41 through two games), and taking care of traffic in front of franchise goaltender Ryan Miller.
You want the long and short on this team? Well, they come pretty extreme at both ends, from 6'7" rookie defenseman Tyler Myers to 5'9" center Derek Roy. Myers is drawing Zdeno Chara comparisons before he's even turned 20 years of age (so who knows how tall he'll end up?), while Roy is the linchpin to the Buffalo offense. Thomas Vanek is one of the NHL's elite goal scorers, but Roy is the dynamo that gets the Sabres rolling. Watch out also for Drew Stafford, a physical presence up front who leads Buffalo with 10 shots on goal so far.
From Die By The Blade, here are projected lines for Buffalo:
Meet the Good Guys
For Nashville, the two fresh faces on the ice (Joel Ward and Pekka Rinne) each bring something different into the game. For Ward, the hope is that he can settle down the penalty kill and perhaps add some punch to a third line (Smithson-Goc-Grant) that's sorely needed, as so far all of the Predators' goals have come from the top line of Sullivan-Arnott-Hornqvist.
Based on the fact that Wade Belak worked on the ice with Colin Wilson long after the other players had left the morning skate, I'm going to guess that he's the odd man out tonight (Glennon confirms), with the lines likely as follows:
Even Strength Play
Nashville would love to see some of their depth players start chipping in a goal here and there, but so far Barry Trotz has been patient. In fact, he's excused the lack of production by the 2nd line so far by noting that they've had the bulk of the defensive responsibility up front, a slightly different tune than we heard during training camp, when he said that Erat & Legwand need to step up and lead.
Buffalo PP vs. Nashville PK
A sore spot in the Predators' early success has been poor penalty killing; both goals that Colorado scored on Thursday were on the power play, with the second involving Marek Svatos getting left all alone in the goal crease with plenty of time to handle the puck and lift a shot over Dan Ellis. The return of Joel Ward to the lineup will hopefully correct some of those breakdowns from recurring.
The Sabres' power play, meanwhile, is off to a middling start with 2 goals in the first two games. Roy has two assists, with Thomas Vanek and Tim Connolly each having scored a goal.
Nashville PP vs. Buffalo PK
Through two games Jason Arnott has Nashville's lone power play goal, and it may be tough for the Preds to break out tonight against a Sabres' squad that has successfully killed off 8 out of 9 penalties so far. Shea Weber, who led the team last year with 10 PP goals, certainly appears due.
The Sabres' Ryan Miller can be one of the game's elite netminders when healthy, in each season since the lockout, has put up more shutouts with each passing campaign. His .918 save percentage last year was a career high, and at the age of 29, could be just entering his peak years.
For Nashville, we'll finally get a look at Pekka Rinne, who carried the team during the second half of last season, only to see Ellis outshine him in training camp. While a jam-packed schedule over the next few weeks ensures both goalies plenty of ice time, Rinne needs to make a strong impression if he truly wants to become a solid #1 starter.
Until he gets more troops back from sick bay, the key for Barry Trotz will be to keep things close and leverage his top line to best effect, the formula which has led to success in each of the games so far. Joel Ward's return helps with the first part of that plan more than the second, so expect a tight, low-scoring affair that may well be decided by special teams.
Unless, that is, Pekka Rinne takes over and puts in a performance that demands an encore Monday night against Edmonton.