The Nashville Predators close out their current road trip with a stop in Columbus this evening (6:00 Central start, well before party time!), to battle the struggling Blue Jackets. In 14th place in the Western Conference, Columbus has stumbled after making their first playoff appearance last spring, and is an awful 3-12-6 in their last 21 games coming into tonight.
Can the Preds extend the misery of their division rival, while battling through a host of injuries themselves? Let's find out...
Meet the Enemy
The Blue Jackets made one move to shake up the team recently, trading away Jason Chimera to Washington in exchange for defeseman Milan Jurcina and forward Chris Clark. Clark, as the Caps former captain, is hoped to bring some leadership to a roster than has underachieved, given the talent available.
One odd aspect of Columbus' slide is that the goal-scoring has dried up; in their last 8 games, the BJ's haven't topped 2 goals in any single contest. Rick Nash (19 goals, 18 assists in 41 games) is still lighting it up, but outside of him it hasn't been a pretty sight. The Cannon hasn't gotten many chances to fire lately.
But watch out, the Blue Jackets have new t-shirts! Uh oh!
Meet the Good Guys
The Walking Wounded roll into this one without 4 regular members (Jordin Tootoo, Jerred Smithson, Kevin Klein & Martin Erat), which will test the organization's depth for the next few games. Mike Santorelli and Alexander Sulzer have been called up to fill in for the time being to replace Klein and Erat, who thankfully won't be out for very long.
Line combinations and defense pairings are a crapshoot at this point, given all the shuffling that's been required.
What is encouraging, however, is the offensive output that's been on display for several weeks now. Patric Hornqvist is on an absolute tear (7 goals & 3 assists in his last 8 games), and J.P. Dumont appears to have come back to life as well, with 2 goals and 4 assists in his last 7.
In their three previous meetings this season the Preds are undefeated, although two of the victories (in Nashville) came in the shootout.
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|
I don't know about you, but I still have a hard time getting my head around the fact that a Ken Hitchcock team which made the playoffs last year is so lousy defensively, with the 2nd-worst Goals Against/60 in the NHL. For the Preds, they've benefited from the bounces going their way a bit as they inch closer to the league-leaders in shooting percentage, but part of that is due to their crease-crashing ways.
Columbus PP vs. Nashville PK
At 21.2% (7th), the Blue Jackets boast a potent power play, and the Preds will need to make sure they stay out of the box. Against St. Louis on Tuesday, they demonstrated the discipline to do just that as the Blues tried to antagonize them just about every way imaginable. With the 29th-ranked penalty kill (75.7%), discretion is the better part of valor for the Predators.
Nashville PP vs. Columbus PK
The 3rd-worst power play in the league (15.3%) hasn't held Nashville back so far, and there's little reason for that not to continue. At this point, a PP goal is an unexpected bonus for the Preds. Columbus is decent on the PK (81.3%, 15th), so the opportunity here for Nashville might be in quantity, not quality. The Blue Jackets have had to kill off the 5th-most power play chances, so hopefully the Preds can get them in the box more often than themselves.
Ken Hitchcock has been forced to go with a "who's got the hot hand" approach to starting goaltender selections, as Steve Mason has flopped badly after winning the Calder Trophy last season.
|2009 - Steve Mason||31||1735||11||13||92||3.18||866||774||.894||2|
|2009 - Mathieu Garon||16||769||4||5||37||2.89||376||339||.902||1|
Dan Ellis gets the start tonight for Nashville, and boasts a 4-1-1 career record against Columbus, which includes a 1.55 GAA and .953 save percentage:
|2009 - Dan Ellis||18||950||8||7||46||2.91||478||432||.904||0|
Like St. Louis, this is another team in disarray, and the Predators need to put forth another steady, disciplined effort against a Blue Jackets squad that will surely be motivated to rally in front of their home fans on New Year's Eve.
Can the scoring-by-committee approach keep rolling without Martin Erat? Can the defense hold without one of their Top 4 regulars? Can Dan Ellis steal a game? Will Patric Hornqvist go "nya-nya nya nya-nyaaa..." at Kristian Huselius since he made the Swedish Olympic team?
We'll find out the answers to these and many more questions this evening...