Tonight marks the fourth in a key seven-game stretch for the Nashville Predators, wherein each night they face a team above them in the Western Conference standings. With shootout losses against Columbus and Chicago prior to Tuesday's 3-0 win over Calgary, they've garnered four points in the first three games, and have gone 4-1-2 so far in the month of January. With Anaheim in town, however, the Preds will be facing some stiff opposition. Scott Niedermeyer's return from an extended vacation, err... retirement has the Ducks looking like Stanley Cup champions once again, and last week they dominated Nashville 5-2 out in California.
For the Predators, the story recently has been hot goaltending once again from Chris Mason (who appears to have finally shaken off the effects of the flu which hampered him last month), along with steady offensive contributions from Jason Arnott (7 goals, 10 assists in his last 15 games) and J.P. Dumont (7 goals, 7 assists in his last 9). Shea Weber returned to action against Calgary, although since Nashville will dress 11 forwards and 7 defence again tonight, it's likely that he'll continue to be brought along slowly (think 15 minutes of ice time rather than 20-22). No Jordin Tootoo (hip flexor) and no Darcy Hordichuk (leg) means that the Preds will focus even more on puck possession and playing their speed game, which is probably a good idea against the Ducks anyway; it's not like Nashville's going to out-muscle them even if the roster was intact.
The key for the Predators tonight will be to work hard away from the puck offensively, driving traffic to the front of the net and going for tips & rebounds. They're not likely to run much of a cycling game against Anaheim's elite defense corps, so it's incumbent on them to fire away early and often with bodies in front of J.S. Giguere. One area where I would like to see Nashville challenge them is to have the top puck handlers (Radulov & Erat) try to get by Chris Pronger. The last time I ran the Penalty Plus/Minus numbers on January 3rd, Pronger sat at the bottom of the league with a -21 rating, and since he's such a critical part of the Ducks penalty kill, putting him in the box serves a dual purpose.
For the Mallard-based perspective, head over to Battle of California...