A trio of critical games against conference opponents begins tonight at the Sommet Center, as a battered and bruised Edmonton Oilers (2-1-1) team comes to town to face the Predators (2-1-0). If you needed more than that to get you excited about tonight's game, it will also mark the highly anticipated NHL debut of Nashville's 2008 1st-round draft pick, forward Colin Wilson.
Some tickets remain available (follow this link and use the offer code "Preds" for a discount), so you still have a chance to catch the rookie's first game. Hey, it's certainly better than sitting around wallowing in misery over the Titans' 0-5 start.
After the jump, let's break down this key Western Conference battle...
Meet the Enemy
Per Derek Zona at The Copper & Blue, Edmonton's lines should look as follows:
Jacques - Horcoff - Hemsky
O' Sullivan - Gagner - Stone
Penner - Brule - Comrie
Moreau - Cogliano - Stortini
Visnovsky - Staios
Grebeshkov - Gilbert
Smid - Strudwick
He was also good enough to provide a scouting report on how the Oilers have been playing so far:
The Oilers are a young team being made younger by injuries. Fernando Pisani has been on IR, and now Sheldon Souray is headed there as well with "concussion-like symptoms". Ethan Moreau is fighting an ankle
infection and Steady Steve Staios looked a little wobbly in his first game back from "concussion-like symptoms".
The team has other problems, namely J.F. Jacques' struggles are dragging down the team's traditionally strong first line. The combination of Jacques, Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky is being outshot, out-chanced and outscored by a decent margin thus far. Sam Gagner has been strong and Patrick O' Sullivan is getting scoring chances but not goals, and Dustin Penner has been strong until his last game out. The team lacks stoppers and it's going to show, but until then, maybe Quinn's shinny-like style will keep it exciting.
On the bright side, even though the play has been manic, the Oilers are two last second Khabibulin meltdowns from being 4-0-0 and on top of the conference. So they've got that going for them. I guess.
Hometown boy Mike Comrie leads the Oilers so far with 2 goals and 2 assists, but the real forces up front are Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky, two of the better NHL players you never seem to hear about. Lowetide wonders if there's a 30-goal man in this bunch, or whether scoring by committee might be enough to get the job done.
Behind the bench, the Oilers have gone with a "two heads are better than one" philosophy, as
Pregnant Cabbage Craig MacTavish was let go over the summer, and replaced by Pat Quinn. Playing a major role, however, is former Rangers coach Tom Renney as Quinn's assistant. This combination of the old-school bench barker with the more refined, analytical Renney will be an interesting one to follow over the course of the season.
The big news heading into this game is the absence of Sheldon Souray, a major force on the Edmonton blueline. With Staios also less than 100%, the Oilers will have to test their defensive depth.
Meet the Good Guys
Lines are projected as follows, with input from @PredsRadio that Wilson will center Ward and Jones. With Zach Stortini playing for Edmonton, I wouldn't be surprised to see Wade Belak also get some ice time tonight.
Sullivan - Arnott - Hornqvist
Santorelli - Legwand - Erat
Jones - Wilson - Ward
Smithson - Goc -Guite
Suter - Weber
Hamhuis - Klein
Bouillon - Laakso
There's hope that perhaps David Legwand can snap out his offensive slump tonight, as he's notched 10 goals and 16 assists in 32 career games against the Oilers.
Even Strength Play
Both Edmonton and Nashville have done well in 5-on-5 action so far, with the Preds having outscored their opposition 4-2 (in three games) and the Oilers holding a 10-8 advantage (in four). Saturday against Buffalo the Jones-Goc- Ward line made some headway, which Nashville is desperately looking for as nothing has panned out yet offensively after of the Arnott line.
Edmonton PP vs. Nashville PK
The recent return of Joel Ward will prove critical to improving on the Preds' middling start on the penalty kill (76.9%, 17th in the NHL). Edmonton's power play is clipping along at an admirable 20% pace, but Souray's loss deprives them of a prime weapon.
Nashville PP vs. Edmonton PK
With just 1 goal in 7 opportunities, the Predators power play is off to a typically slow start, and the absence of J.P. Dumont bodes ill for making much headway. Colin Wilson was included in recent special teams meetings, so he might get an opportunity there this evening. Edmonton's PK is 21st currently, so this may be a matchup of the impotent force vs. the very-movable object.
Having stopped 41 of 42 shots Saturday against Buffalo, Pekka Rinne has earned the start tonight, with Dan Ellis slotted for Wednesday's game in Dallas. Rinne beat the Oilers three times last season. Word has it that Edmonton will go with
Nikolai Khabibulin their backup, Jeff Deslauriers, who gets his first start of the campaign tonight.
All eyes will be on the rookie Wilson tonight, but make no mistake about it, this is an important game for the Nashville Predators as a whole.
Edmonton is in the mix of teams that should finish anywhere from 6-10 in the West this season, so a game on home ice, in which the Oilers will miss their top offensive defenseman, represents a major opportunity for Nashville. The games now count just as much as the ones down the stretch in March, so it is by no means premature to call this a "key" matchup.