Tonight at 7:00 the Nashville Predators kick off the 2009-10 NHL regular season with game in Dallas (and yes, this game is in HD on Fox Sports TN). Last season, the Stars and Predators split their four-game series, with the home team winning each game. After long streaks of playoff appearances, both teams fell short last spring, and given how tight the playoff race generally turns out in the West, it's entirely likely that the Preds and Stars will fight tooth-and-nail down the stretch.
Be sure to check back this evening for the Game Thread, where we can comment on the game in progress.
So remember, today's game counts just as much as the ones in March. After the jump, let's break down the matchup...
Meet the Enemy
Defending Big D is SB Nation's Dallas Stars blog, and the 2009-10 Season Preview is recommended reading. With new coach Marc Crawford taking over behind the bench, the Stars are a team on the brink - long a Western Conference power, they fell far last season as injuries to key players (Brendan Morrow, Sergei Zubov) took their toll and goaltender Marty Turco broke down. With Morrow back at the helm, can they rebound into the playoffs, or will they struggle to find a new identity?
Per Brandon at Defending Big D, here are the Dallas lines:
James Neal - Brad Richards - Loui Eriksson
Brenden Morrow - Mike Ribeiro - Jamie Benn
Steve Ott - Mike Modano - Toby Petersen
Krys Barch -Brian Sutherby - Fabian Brunnstrom
Nicklas Grossman - Stephane Robidas
Karlis Skrastins - Trevor Daley
Jeff Woywitka - Matt Niskanen
Meet the Good Guys
Last year, J.P. Dumont led Nashville scorers in the 4 games against Dallas with 5 assists, and Jason Arnott was the top goal-scorer with 3. Teemu Laakso will make his NHL debut tonight, while Mike Santorelli plays his first Opening Night in the NHL after a short stint with the team midway through last year. The Predators lines are likely to look like the following, since Joel Ward and Jordin Tootoo are out of action:
Sullivan - Arnott - Dumont
Santorelli - Legwand - Erat
Jones - Goc - Hornqvist
Smithson - Guite - Belak
Suter - Weber
Hamhuis - Klein
Bouillon - Laakso
Even Strength Play
Last season both teams were slightly outscored at even strength (with identical 0.94 GF/GA ratios in 5-on-5 play), and probably the single biggest factor in each of their fortunes this year will be whether they can improve in that area. Will the Predators' revamped 3rd line give them more offensive punch? How will the new 2nd defensive pair of Dan Hamhuis and Kevin Klein work out? Will a healthy Brad Richards and Brendan Morrow return Dallas to dominance? Tonight they can start answering those questions.
Nashville PP vs. Dallas PK
The Predators' power play has typically been a sore spot, but there are twin causes for hope in tonight's game. First, with the return of Steve Sullivan the Nashville PP improve over last season, and secondly, Dallas returns a poor PK unit (24th) which doesn't appear to have been strengthened over the summer, and key defensive forward Jere Lehtinen (a 3-time Selke Trophy winner) is unlikely to play.
Dallas PP vs. Nashville PK
The loss of Zubov hit Dallas hardest on the power play, where they plummeted to 27th in the NHL last season, just below Nashville. Without a clear successor to quarterback the PP, Dallas will rely on a talented group of forwards to carry the load.
Nashville's penalty killing unit has undergone considerable turnover this summer, and what remains to be seen is how well new defensemen Francis Bouillon and Teemu Laakso are integrated into the PK. Up front, someone will have to fill the ice time taken by departed free agents Vern Fiddler and Scott Nichol, and for tonight at least, Joel Ward is unavailable. Look for Ben Guite and Jerred Smithson to get the bulk of that work.
Which goaltender will get the start for Nashville? Barry Trotz has (somewhat controversially) kept mum on that question. Pekka Rinne was talked about all summer as the team's #1 starter, but Dan Ellis had the better pre-season, and has two shutouts in seven games against the Stars (with a .913 save percentage and 2.11 GAA). Rinne has yet to play against Dallas.
UPDATE: At long last, Dan Ellis has been named to start today's game...
For the Stars, Marty Turco enters the final year of his contract as a man on a mission, trying to rebound from his worst pro season to date (.898 Save Percentage, 2.81 GAA). Can he start off with a big game against Nashville? We'll see tonight...