The Nashville Predators are in Phoenix today for an all-important conference matchup against the Coyotes, who trail the Predators in the standings by the slightest of margins. Tonight marks the first time since December 12th that Nashville will have their full complement of players, with Jordin Tootoo returning from a broken foot after Jerred Smithson and Jason Arnott returned Monday against Toronto.
The Coyotes and Predators have are two of the league's biggest surprises this season. Follow below where we break down a game where the result could loom large come playoff time...
Nashville coming in
The Predators, 7-3-0 in their last ten, sitting in 4th place in the Western Conference with 61 points, are coming off a bit of a demoralizing loss to the Maple Leafs on Monday. They returned players from injury, but it wasn't enough as Pekka Rinne was extremely poor in goal and got pulled in favor of Dan Ellis. The penalty kill continues improving, though, with a perfect performance in the 4-3 loss. Tonight's game should be a good barometer of where the Preds stand in regards to the other Western surprises like Colorado and Phoenix. The Predators have 7 guys over 25 points (3 with 30+) and will need that phenomenal balance to continue.
Phoenix coming in
The 'Yotes, 4-4-2 in their last ten, have tailed off somewhat and are currently residing in the 5th spot in the West with a 28-17-5 record and 61 points. They recently got hammered by Buffalo, and will certainly be looking to rebound well on home ice. They have, like Nashville, a below-average power play which is 22nd in the NHL. The penalty kill is much better (10th), though, and is something that the Preds will need to solve for a better chance at two points. Captain Shane Doan is their top point producer with 31, while former Predator Vernon Fiddler has 17 in his first season after leaving Nashville. For some Coyotes beat, check out Five for Howling, and for an interview I had with 'Yotes blogger Travis Hair, go here.
For the Preds, free agent acquisition Marcel Goc has vastly outperformed expectations, especially of late (check out those penalty minutes!):
|2009 - Marcel Goc||47||10||9||19||8||8||0||0||0||0||78||12.8|
For Phoenix, Radim Vrbata leads the team in goals and recently had a nice point streak:
|2009 - Radim Vrbata||50||16||14||30||12||16||4||0||2||0||171||9.4|
I'm afraid I have to slot Martin Erat here again, as he went pointless again against Toronto and had an awful turnover that lead directly to a goal.
|2009 - Martin Erat||42||15||13||28||-7||30||4||0||2||0||81||18.5|
For the 'Yotes, I honestly don't know, so I'll just leave it blank.
The Guys in Goal
For Nashville, I'd assume that Barry Trotz continues his rotation which would mean Dan Ellis gets the call.
|2009 - Dan Ellis||23||1240||11||9||52||2.52||611||559||.915||1|
Phoenix has a strong Vezina Trophy candidate in net and in an important game such as tonight's I doubt they'd go with anyone else.
|2009 - Ilya Bryzgalov||43||2508||25||13||97||2.32||1172||1075||.917||5|
As mentioned, Jordin Tootoo returns tonight, and J.P. Dumont is out with the flu, leaving us with these likely lines:
Sullivan - Arnott - Hornqvist
Ward - Legwand -Smithson
Jones - Goc - Erat
Tootoo - Spaling - Belak
Suter - Weber
Hamhuis - Klein
Bouillon - Franson
For the Coyotes, what I've researched reveals these somewhat probable and totally subject to change lines:
Upshall - Lombardi - Doan
Prucha - Hanzal - Vrbata
Pyatt - Lang - Mueller
Bissonnette - Fiddler - Korpikoski
Jovanovski - Michalek
Aucoin - Vandermeer
Lepisto - Yandle
These Coyotes are a completely different animal (sorry, couldn't resist) than last year's squad. A lot of it has to do with some all-world goaltending from Bryzgalov, but more of it has to do with a fantastic coaching job by Dave Tippett. I think that the Predators, angry about a horrible loss to Toronto, will come out hot and bothered. They've been great on the road so far and I look for that to continue in a less-than-intimidating venue in the desert. Lets mark this one down for a 3-2 shootout victory for the good guys.