Predators Game Day Preview: Tampa Bay @ Nashville

Tonight the Nashville Predators play their last home game before Christmas, a rare date hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning. At 11-12-9, the Lightning are plummeting through the Eastern Conference standings, while the Preds (19-11-3) have kept pace in a very competitive Western Conference.

Follow after the jump for the breakdown of tonight's game...

Meet the Enemy

Raw Charge is the SB Nation blog covering the Tampa Bay Lightning, and they've had the unfortunate task of chronicling a nasty 1-6-1 stretch that dates back to November 30th. For the 17th consecutive year, we hear that Vincent Lecavalier isn't happy and that the team would love to trade him, but his $23.8 billion salary is a holdup.

There's lot to like about this team, though; Martin St. Louis is still a dynamo (think a left-handed Steve Sullivan) and leads the team in scoring, while Steve Stamkos has made a huge step in his 2nd NHL season, leading the team with 17 goals.

On defense, they've got the gargantuan Swede Viktor Hedman, the #2 overall pick in the 2009 draft as well. The future appears to be bright for Tampa, if they can get through the troubles that plague them in the present.

The Tampa lines may look as follows. This comes from Raw Charge's preview:

Forward Lines:

Ryan Malone -Steven Stamkos - Martin St. Louis
Paul Szczechura - Vincent Lecavalier - Steve Downie
Blair Jones - James Wright - Stephane Veilleux
David Hale - Zenon Konopka - Kurtis Foster

Defense:

 Mattias Ohlund | Andrej Meszaros
Victor Hedman | Lukas Krajicek
Matt Walker | Matt Smbay

Meet the Good Guys

Riding a 12-3-2 stretch that has lifted them into playoff position in the West, the Predators are on a roll; not especially dominating the opposition each night, but playing well enough to win on most nights. They're averaging 3.57 goals per game in their last 7, a pace that's certainly enough to ensure victory as long as the team defense and goaltending hold up.

With Nick Spaling recalled from Milwaukee today, the lines are likely to look as follows:

Forwards
Sullivan - Arnott - Erat
Ward - Legwand - Smithson
Jones - Goc - Dumont
Hornqvist - Scatchard - Spaling
Defense
Suter - Weber
Bouillon - Klein
Hamhuis - Sulzer

The interesting question for me is whether Ryan Jones or Patric Hornqvist plays on the Goc/Dumont line; both scored last night, but to my eye Hornqvist is a better fit there to finish off the chances that Dumont sets up, while Jones' energy and ability to draw penalties is suited to the 4th line.

Even Strength Play

5-on-5 data from Behind the Net
 TEAM GP GF GA GF/60 SF/60 Sht % GA/60 SA/60 Save Pct. +/- per 60
 Tampa Bay 32 49 52 2.0 26.3 7.8 2.2 30.0 .927 -0.1
 Nashville 33 56 58 2.1 29.6 7.2 2.2 28.9 .923 -0.1

Other than the fact that the Lightning get outshot a bit in 5-on-5, these are fairly similar teams overall at even strength. They are both relatively low-scoring, and backed by solid goaltending.

Advantage: none

Tampa Bay PP vs. Nashville PK

For a team with so much skill up front, it's a bit surprising to see the Lightning down at 24th on the power play at 17.5%. That's a perfect matchup against a Predators penalty kill which, thanks to two PP goals given up to Columbus last night, sits at 26th, 78.2%. For Nashville, it will be imperative to get back to good, disciplined hockey, as the Lightning do draw quite a lot of calls.

Advantage: none

Nashville PP vs. Tampa Bay PK

The Predators power play has slunk back down to 27th in the league (16.5%), quashing hopes for a sustained presence in the middle of the NHL packs. Fortunately, the Lightning have a pretty average penalty kill (20th at 79.1%), but they take quite a few penalties, so there's hope at least to tip the special teams balance in Nashville's favor.

Advantage: none

Goaltending

Antero Niittymaki was in net for Tampa Bay on Sunday, as they dropped a 4-0 decision in Chicago, and he gets the start tonight as well. There is discussion that Mike Smith is being shopped on the trade market:


Antero Niittymaki

#30 / Goalie / Tampa Bay Lightning

6-1

195

Jun 18, 1980

GP MIN W L GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2009 - Antero Niittymaki 16 956 6 5 36 2.26 490 454 .927 0

You can expect to see Pekka Rinne in goal tonight for the Preds, who sports a 13-3-2 record in his last 18 games:


Pekka Rinne

#35 / Goalie / Nashville Predators

6-5

206

Nov 03, 1982

GP MIN W L GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2009 - Pekka Rinne 23 1287 13 6 56 2.61 615 559 .909 2

Advantage: none

Summary

The Lightning have a decent amount of talent, but right now are a team in disarray, and this is when the structure that Barry Trotz is most famous for should pay dividends. With a disciplined, hard-fought effort, the Preds need to jump on this team early and get them down. Even though the various elements here don't favor one team or another, the Lightning are a mess right now.

Recently, Tampa coach Rick Tocchet benched his top players because he didn't like the way they were playing; if Nashville can force that kind of meltdown once again, they should be able to handle this team.

UPDATE: According to Erik Erlendsson on Twitter, Tampa is scratching Alex Tanguay and Jeff Halpern, while dressing 8 defensemen. If that doesn't sound like pushing a panic button, I don't know what does.

And just in case you're looking for another reason to care about tonight's battle, check out Preds 101.

For discounted tickets to this or any other Nashville Predators home game, you can follow this link and use the special offer code "PREDS".

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