Tonight we raise the curtain on the Nashville Predators home season as they host the 2-0 Colorado Avalanche, who begin a wicked road trip this evening. The Avs topped the Sharks and Canucks at home to begin the campaign, but can they keep that momentum rolling or are they primed for a steep downhill decline? They are, after all, the Avalanche...
Later this afternoon I'll have a Game Thread available for in-game discussion, but for now let's break down this Western Conference battle:
Meet the Enemy
This certainly isn't your daddy's Colorado Avalanche, as they've entered a rebuilding phase prompted by a lousy 2008-9 season, the retirement of the legendary Joe Sakic, and the drafting of center Matt Duchene with the #3 overall pick in this year's NHL Entry Draft. Top that off with a new #1 goalie (Craig Anderson) and rookie head coach Joe Sacco, and you've got a significantly different Avalanche team in the works. Will it contend for the playoffs? Probably not yet, but they've taken some steps in the right direction. Jim Diamond has an interview with Barry Trotz which covers all of Colorado's new faces.
Make sure to check out Mile High Hockey, SB Nation's Colorado Avalanche blog, for all things Denver.
Here's a best guess at the Colorado lines, from MHH's recap of their Game 1 win:
McLeod - Duchene - Svatos
Tucker - Galiardi - Stewart
Koci - O'Reilly - Hendricks
Quincey - Hannan
Foote - Liles
Clark - Cumiskey
Quincey in particular brings some new offensive punch from the blueline, while up front, the hot hands early have been Wojtek Wolski (3 goals, 1 assist), Paul Stastny (1 goal, 3 assists), and Darcy Tucker (2 goals). We might see Ruslan Salei step in for his first game on defense (according to Adrian Dater), which could be good news for Nashville; Salei takes plenty of penalties, and was among the worst in the NHL last year in terms of Penalty Plus/Minus.
Meet the Good Guys
The Predators come into the home opener battling a host of injuries; Colin Wilson and Jordin Tootoo are definitely out with groin trouble, and J.P. Dumont still hasn't skated since taking that huge hit from Stephane Robidas in Dallas - simply put, no news is very, very bad news on the Dumont front, considering Nashville has 5 games over the 8 days starting tonight. J.P. also boasts 20 points (6 goals, 14 assists) in 22 games against Colorado, so his play-making ability will definitely be missed.
We'll hopefully know after the morning skate whether Joel Ward might be able to go tonight (update: he skated in practice, but will be a game-time decision), but considering everything that's been said in recent days, I highly doubt it. Admirals Short Shifts has reason to believe that Triston Grant will be called up from Milwaukee as a short-term replacement (and the NHL's game notes list him on the Preds' active roster), so let's take a look at projected lines:
Sullivan - Arnott - Hornqvist
Santorelli - Legwand - Erat
Smithson - Goc - Ward/Grant
Jones - Guite - Belak
Suter - Weber
Hamhuis - Klein
Bouillon - Laakso
I would guess that if Grant is indeed in the lineup, he'd work the fourth line, with Ryan Jones moving up to the third (Update: John Glennon writes that Grant is instead likely to skate on the Goc/Smithson line). Either way, it's a big night for Patric Hornqvist to build on his solid pre-season work on the top line, and for the line of Santorelli-Legwand-Erat to step up and attack Colorado's depth players.
Even Strength Play
In their opening victories against San Jose and Vancouver, the Avalanche have racked up an impressive 5 GF and 1 GA at even strength, but that masks a team that was 2nd-worst in the league last year at 5-on-5 play. There hasn't been enough roster turnover yet to believe that they'll make huge gains on that front, so this is more of a case of Colorado getting off to a hot start than genuinely transforming into an elite team.
That said, it's not like the Preds were lights-out last year at even strength (20th), and with all the injury concerns, they'll have to either shorten the bench or rely on depth players to keep up the attack.
Colorado PP vs. Nashville PK
Colorado brought in Kyle Quincey to help run the point, and the top unit that he anchors along with Hejduk, Stastny, Duchene and Liles could prove formidable. There's quite a dropoff after that, however, as the 2nd unit isn't nearly as scary.
As for Nashville's penalty killers, however, the absence of Joel Ward is a concern. He isn't just one of the top Predators PK men, last season he was one of the best in the entire NHL. It will be interesting to see who Barry Trotz throws out there against Colorado's 2nd unit if the opportunity arises. Personally, I think a combo up front of David Legwand and Martin Erat could not only do a good job defensively, but threaten for a shorthanded score as well.
Nashville PP vs. Colorado PK
We have a similar story on the opposite side of the special teams matchup, as (particularly without Dumont) there's a big dropoff between the 1st and 2nd power play groups for Nashville. The optimistic point for the Preds is that last season's Avalanche team was pretty poor on the PK, and outside of the goaltending change, there's little reason to believe there's been much improvement on that front.
There was concern earlier this week in Denver that a sore groin might trouble Craig Anderson, but all signs point to him starting tonight. After backing up Tomas Vokoun in Florida, he's landed a genuine #1 opportunity with the Avalanche and should acquit himself well. He's certainly used to facing a lot of shots behind some pretty porous Panthers teams, and that trend should continue this year.
#41 / Goalie / Colorado Avalanche
May 21, 1981
|2009 - Craig Anderson||2||120||2||0||2||1.00||75||73||.973||1|
For the Preds, Dan Ellis gets his second-straight start to open the season, based on his strong pre-season work and a generally excellent performance against Dallas last Saturday (with the notable exception of a giveaway which led to the tying goal). In two career games against Colorado, Ellis is 1-1-0 with a 0.50 GAA and .983 Save Percentage.
#39 / Goalie / Nashville Predators
Jun 19, 1980
GP MIN W L T EGA GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2009 - Dan Ellis
#39 / Goalie / Nashville Predators
Jun 19, 1980
|2009 - Dan Ellis||1||65||1||0||2||1.85||40||38||.950||0|
This is a classic matchup of two teams with nice top-end talent, but depth issues (Nashville's due in part to injury trouble). The key, then, will be Barry Trotz's ability to use home-ice advantage to get the personnel matchups that he wants.