Tonight the Nashville Predators (22-11-3) wrap up their 3-game road trip through western Canada against the 20-16-0 Vancouver Canucks. For the Preds, they'll look to build upon the 4-2 victory over the Canucks from two weeks ago, which featured a hat trick for Martin Erat.
It's a late start tonight (9:30 Central) on FS-TN, so until then you can check out the matchup - and while you're reading, you can listen to a segment from this afternoon's Thom Abraham Show, in which Terry Crisp previews the game (MP3 audio), and includes some interesting commentary as to how Barry Trotz turned the Predators around after a slow 2-5-1 start...
Meet the Enemy
Nucks Misconduct is your source of Vancouver Canucks coverage, and they're not a happy bunch these days. When St. Louis came to town on Sunday, they called it a test of character. The home then went out and lost 3-1 to the underachieving Blues, so I guess they failed that test.
As always, the cast of characters in Vancouver starts with Henrik & Daniel Sedin, continues through with solid complementary players like Ryan Kesler and Mikael Samuelsson, and then on to a defense corps that hasn't quite come together as expected. Mathieu Schneider was signed to boost the power play, for example, but hasn't made much impact with just 2 goals and 3 assists in 17 games.
It's a talented crew, which was widely expected to contend for the Stanley Cup, but instead currently sits in 10th place in the Western Conference. The Canucks have won 4 of the 6 games so far on a long homestand that ends Saturday against Edmonton. Vancouver wants to make as much progress on home ice as possible before heading out on a long road trip on either side of the Olympic break.
Meet the Good Guys
The big question for Nashville is whether Jason Arnott will be ready to go (UPDATE: he's in!); he was a game-day scratch against Calgary on Saturday, but has been able to practice. If he can't go, we're likely to see Marcel Goc get more duty between Steve Sullivan and Martin Erat on the top line, as the Legwand line will be relied upon to battle the Sundin twins.
A number of Predators will be playing in front of friends and family tonight, including Cody Franson, Shea Weber, and Dan Hamhuis. Might the setting prompt a big offensive game out of #6? Weber hasn't scored a goal since November 25 at Colorado, and uncharacteristically, has just 3 shots on goal in the last 4 games. Hamhuis has struggled on the defensive end recently and could use a rebound, too.
With Arnott back in, the lines are likely as follows:
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|
At first this looks like about the most even matchup you could hope for, with most of these numbers with a rounding error of each other. However, these season-long totals belie the fact that the Predators have played much better since October. For example, in the last 25 games, Nashville has 58 Goals For and just 40 Goals Against in 5-on-5 play, a ratio that would rank at the very top of the league if sustained.
Vancouver PP vs. Nashville PK
The Canucks rank 6th with a 22.4% power play, and get a decent number of chances to make it work. One of their trigger men on the point, Sami Salo, missed some practice recently but is expected to play. The Preds penalty killing has been pretty bad lately, ranking 28th with a 76.0% kill rate.
Nashville PP vs. Vancouver PK
The Predators are still sputtering with the man advantage, with a 16.3% conversion rate good for 27th in the league. The Canucks are pretty much a middle-of-the-pack team on the PK, but that's probably good enough here.
The Canucks get to roll out Roberto Luongo every night, giving them a a chance to win every game they play:
|2009 - Roberto Luongo||29||1659||16||12||67||2.42||800||733||.916||2|
Dan Ellis gets the start tonight for the Predators,riding a 5-1-0 streak that includes a .924 save percentage:
|2009 - Dan Ellis||16||831||8||5||37||2.67||413||376||.910||0|
The keys for Nashville will be to continue the strong 5-on-5 play and hope for something positive out of the special teams. While the depth scoring has been a fantastic boost, the stars like Arnott, Weber, Erat, Sullivan and J.P. Dumont (1 goal in his last 11 games) need to step up.
It will also be important for goaltending to try and rise to the challenge that Luongo presents at the other end of the ice. Dan Ellis won't have to necessarily play better than Luongo, but certainly can't afford to give up any cheap goals to Vancouver.