Nashville's latest playoff nemesis makes their first visit to Bridgestone Arena this evening, as the Vancouver Canucks roll in to town. Can the Preds continue their pursuit of the Red Wings for first place in the Central Division against one of the top teams in the Western Conference?
Follow after the jump for your preview...
As was expected, the Canucks are running away with the Northwest Division, which allows them the luxury of taking the long view right now and worry about fine-tuning for the playoffs, rather that stress over every game along the way. That's why some observers set aside the Canucks' 7-2-2 record last month and focus instead on fundamental aspects of team performance, and what they might mean for the road ahead:
Sure, the Canucks out-scored their opponents 12-7, but were outshot 158-118. Roberto Luongo threw up a .959 in January with the score tied and Cory Schneider a .947. It's incredible how good (and lucky) the team's goaltending has been.
But the Canucks 7-win record in January is a house of cards; despite big wins over Boston, Chicago, San Jose and St. Louis, neither of those wins were by more than a goal. In fact, the Canucks' had just a single clear victory, a win where a team wins by 2-or-more and empty net goals don't count. They're tracked by our friends in Edmonton at The Copper n Blue on a sidebar about halfway down the page, and while the Canucks are 17-7 overall, they were 1-1 in January. Games were too close for me to like, especially with a dangerously-high PDO.
Goaltending like that doesn't last forever, that's for sure.
UPDATE: This comes from Jason Botchford, covering the Canucks' morning skate today:
shakeup: bitz-henrik-Raymond, daniel-kesler-burrows, booth-hodgson-Hansen— Jason Botchford (@BotchonCanucks) February 7, 2012
Might the Sedin twins get split up tonight? I can't remember that happening before in Vancouver...
One guy to keep an eye on is the NHL's Rookie of the Month for January, who is prospering these days in a Bottom Six role:
#9 / Center / Vancouver Canucks
Feb 18, 1990
|2011 - Cody Hodgson||52||14||16||30||+7||4||5||0||2||92||15.2|
The main danger lies in the Sedins-with-Burrows and the Kesler-Booth combination. But when you have extra scoring pop coming from the depth lines as well, that's how you end up with a top-3 offense in the NHL.
Vancouver Canucks Last 5 Games
The Preds continue to enjoy a relatively long stretch of good health, which leaves Barry Trotz some decisions to make on how watches from the pressbox tonight. It doesn't look like there's a suitable dance partner for Brian McGrattan, so count him out. The trio of Smithson, Hillen & Bourque sat out Saturday's game against St. Louis, so which one of them would get back into the mix?
Given the nature of the opponent tonight, my guess (and it's just a guess) would be that Smithson gets back in. Winning defensive-zone faceoffs and strong penalty-killing will be especially important tonight, as Alain Vignault loves to load up his star players with lots of offensive-zone draws.
Expect Pekka Rinne to get the start, as he hopes to even up his career record (4-5-0) against Vancouver:
#35 / Goalie / Nashville Predators
Nov 03, 1982
|2011 - Pekka Rinne||47||2688||30||11||4||106||2.37||1417||1311||.925||4|