REMINDER: Tonight's game has a special 6:00 Central start time, due to the national Versus broadcast (well, national except for those of us with DirecTV).
Well folks, the Nashville Predators (12-8-1) have played well over the last few weeks, winning 9 of their last 11 to reverse a woeful start to this 2009-10 season. Tonight, however, in front of a national audience, they face the biggest test of the season so far, their arch-nemesis from Detroit.
The Red Wings have always been the measuring stick for the Predators franchise, but this season, with an 11-6-4 record so far, Detroit has come back to the pack in the Western Conference. Is this a case of a team working the kinks out before tearing up the league in the second half, or is Detroit finally going to finish lower than 1st or 2nd in their division for the first time since the 1990-91 season?
Before diving into the preview after the jump, take a few moments to relive one of the greatest moments in Predators history - the "2 goals in 9 seconds" during the 2008 playoffs, when the Preds quickly took the lead late in Game 3 of the first round, and sent Dominik Hasek into retirement:
Are you ready, Predators fans?
Meet the Enemy
This year's edition of the Red Wings isn't exactly the same as in recent years. Free agent departures like Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson and Jiri Hudler have definitely shortened the talent pool up front, and injuries (most recently to Niklas Kronwall) have hurt as well. The goaltending has been sub-par for the second consecutive regular season.
But it's still Detroit, and thanks to a healthy Shots For & Against margin (34.1 to 27.8 per game) and the #7 offense in the NHL, they're still a very dangerous team. I asked MrNorrisTrophy from Winging It In Motown about how the Big Red Machine is rolling these days:
Detroit's level of play has been anything but consistent so far this season. In large part I chalk that up to the injuries and changes on the roster from the team last year. Originally many felt the team would be fine despite the loss of Hossa, Hudler, Samuelsson, Conklin but as the injuries have piled up to crucial guys like Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula and now Niklas Kronwall things might be even harder down the stretch.
The team has had monumental contributions from Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk and the most surprising success is Tomas Holmstrom. Holmstrom at one point looked as if his game was fading but he's found some sort of second wind at this point in his career and is scoring goals left and right. The defense was shaky at best early in the season but has started to gel more-until the Kronwall injury that is-and they're more aware of their responsibilities for rebounds and the like. Jimmy Howard has come on strong despite his slow start and has played a few truly incredible games. Chris Osgood has looked horrible at points this year and with the success of Howard we might be seeing a changing of the guard before the season is done.
The team has found a way to win, mainly with clutch performances and a tightened defensive game. Going forward, I think this team will only get better once Filppula, Franzen, Kronwall, and Williams (if he's able to) return to the line up.
Meet the Good Guys
The Predators are on fire, due mostly to a few key factors - excellent goaltending from Pekka Rinne, steady work by the defense corps to limit dangerous scoring chances, and a power play that has finally woken up. After his senseless "hooking" call against the Blue Jackets, I'm going to guess that Wade Belak goes back to the press box for tonight's game (update: confirmed), leaving the lines as follows:
There is a question as to how the Goc and Santorelli lines will shake out; there's been considerable shuffling of the wingers alongside them.
Even Strength Play
|5-on-5 Team Data from Behind the Net|
|Team||GP||GF||GA||GF/60||Shots For/60||Sht %||GA/60||Shots Ag/60||Save %||+/- per 60|
This is as big an indication as any that Detroit's dominance has slipped this season - typically they've been one of the best even-strength teams in the NHL. The Predators continue to be hamstrung by the lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the league; if they had a more typical shooting percentage (around 8%), they'd have about 10 more goals this season, and probably be nipping at Chicago's heels atop the Central Division.
There is a bright side here, however, as Detroit's goaltending in this situation is among the worst in the league, so perhaps the Nashville shooters can break through.
Detroit PP vs. Nashville PK
With guys like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Holmstrom, Lidstrom and Rafalski on the job, the Red Wings are enjoying their usual success on the power play (5th in the NHL at 23.9%), while the Predators have been steadily climbing through the ranks this month, having reached 16th in penalty killing at 79.7% (they were 30th for a while in the early going). The Red Wings draw a fair number of penalties, too, so discipline will be key for Nashville, which has done an excellent job staying out of the box so far.
Nashville PP vs. Detroit PK
With 2 power play goals against Columbus Saturday night, the Preds have continued a recent hot streak that has provided a badly-needed boost to their overall offensive performance. Having languished under 10% throughout October, the PP has now climbed to 15.7% - only good for 25th in the league, but a fair step higher than just a few weeks ago. Detroit's penalty kill has been a sore point, 26th in the NHL as they've had to rotate a number of forwards through that group.
Jimmy Howard has been getting much of the work lately and is expected to get the start tonight for Detroit According to the Detroit Free Press, Chris Osgood will start tonight for the Red Wings:
|2009 - Chris Osgood||13||710||6||3||32||2.70||327||295||.902||1|
For Nashville, Pekka Rinne has been outstanding, with 5 straight victories and 9 in his last 10 decisions. John Glennon confirms this afternoon that Rinne gets the start tonight:
|2009 - Pekka Rinne||14||780||9||4||31||2.38||361||330||.914||2|
Can the Predators keep their momentum going and claw past the Red Wings into 3rd place in the Central in front of a national television audience? With Kronwall out of the lineup for Detroit, the key will be to aggressively challenge the Red Wings defense, while watching out for the elite players who will surely carry the burden of extra ice time.
And hey, we can always hope for a repeat of that rollicking good time from February 28 of last season...