After two long weeks on the road to accomodate the CMA's being held at the Sommet Center, the Nashville Predators (8-8-1) return to home ice tonight for a matchup with the Montreal Canadiens (9-10-0). These two teams, although they only meet once per season, tend to play close games against each other. The last time the Habs came to Music City, on February 22 2007, they took a 6-5 shootout decision.
Following the jump, let's break down this matchup...
Meet the Enemy
Le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. The Flying Frenchmen. Les Habitants. The Habs.
Montreal isn't just the most successful team in the history of the National Hockey League, with 24 Stanley Cups, they're one of the most storied franchises in all of professional sports. The rafters at the Molson Centre are crowded with Stanley Cup Championship banners, retired jerseys, and other tributes to a century of outstanding hockey. For the SB Nation look at the Canadiens, check out Habs Eyes On the Prize; just be prepared to lose an hour or so browsing through all the history there.
Led by new coach Jacques Martin, who joined the Canadiens after five seasons behind the bench for Florida, the team has a very different look this season. General Manager Bob Gainey used the summer free agency period to massively reshape his lineup, bringing in (as I called them in the Maple Leafs Annual) a collection of "undersized dipsy-doodlers" in Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, and Scott Gomez.
While the personnel shift might call for firewagon hockey, Martin is not that kind of coach; he prefers defensive responsibility out of his forwards, so despite the up-tempo firepower added up front the Habs are only 24th in the league in goal-scoring. Iinstead of one of those three high-profiles leading the charge, center Tomas Plekanec actually leads the team in scoring to this point with 4 goals and 13 assists through 19 games.
Meet the Good Guys
Mark over at The View From 111 sums up the play of the Preds so far; in short, we've got another disciplined, scrappy bunch on our hands that will rely on standout goaltending to make a run to the playoffs. Considering that we still have yet to field a completely healthy lineup (Colin Wilson is due to return next week), I'm optimistic that this team can make a run; but to be honest, they have a very thin margin for error.
That's why I feel so strongly that David Poile needs to act decisively to add some offensive talent up front.
From the Montreal perspective, Habs Inside/Out has an assessment of the Preds.
The good news with Nashville is that the reunited top line of Steve Sullivan, Jason Arnott, and J.P. Dumont looked like they hadn't missed a beat Thursday night in St. Louis; they dominated the Blues and fired 10 shots at even strength; if they can start producing regularly it could go a long ways towards alleviating Nashville's offensive woes. In comments after the morning skate, coach Barry Trotz emphasized that he needs that line to be "consistently dangerous", not focusing so much on scoreboard results game-by-game, but rather their ability to drive the play into the offensive zone and create chances.
I'd bring you the exact quote, but being the super-slick new media guy that I am, I missed hitting the "Record" button before asking the coach that question.
The lines are likely to look as follows:
Even Strength Play
|GP||GF||GA||GF/60||SF/60||Shooting %||GA/60||SA/60||Save %||+/- per 60|
These are both relatively mediocre teams in 5-on-5 play, but the Predators at least enjoy steady goaltending and have been improving overall lately.
Montreal PP vs. Nashville PK
At 24th in the NHL with a 17.2% success rate, the Habs' power play hasn't exactly impressed, but they did score twice against the Coyotes on Thursday, so they're trying to build off of recent progress. The Predators PK unit has been much better over the last two weeks after a shaky start, but the most favorable aspect of this matchup is that the Preds don't put themselves in this hole very often; only two teams (Buffalo and New Jersey) have had to kill fewer penalties than the Preds so far this season.
Nashville PP vs. Montreal PK
It's the same old story; Nashville sits 30th in the NHL on the power play, and we can only hope that home cooking can make a difference here. The hope here is that the Preds gets plenty of opportunity, as Montreal has had to kill off the 3rd-most penalties in the NHL after the Hurricanes and Rangers.
And you think Nashville has a bit of a goalie controversy as the Preds try to determine whether Pekka Rinne is a legit #1 starter? That's nothing compared to what's going on in Montreal. Take, for example, this phenomenal breakdown of the Jaroslav Halak/Carey Price debate from Habs Eyes On the Prize. It looks like Carey Price is getting the start tonight for the Habs:
#31 / Goalie / Montreal Canadiens
Aug 16, 1987
|2009 - Carey Price||12||679||4||7||36||3.18||340||304||.894||0|
For the Preds, Pekka Rinne is likely to get the start after his fine work in St. Louis Thursday:
#35 / Goalie / Nashville Predators
Nov 03, 1982
|2009 - Pekka Rinne||10||530||5||4||23||2.60||252||229||.909||1|
With the two main excuses (injuries and a road-heavy schedule) largely out of the way, the stage is set for the Predators to make a statement during the rest of this month, as they play 8 out of 9 games at the Sommet Center. Montreal is a formidable, but not overly daunting opponent, and is the type of team (4-5 on the road) that the Predators should handle on home ice.
The key for Nashville will be to maintain their discipline, tip the special teams balance in their favor, and start scoring some power play goals.