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Nashville Predators @ Columbus Blue Jackets Preview: Let East Week Begin

Preds have a slew of games against Eastern opponents, starting tonight in Ohio.

Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

Whoever asked for two Nashville Predators games in two days leading up to Christmas must have been extremly good this year. The Preds wrap up their season series against Columbus, who have decided to stick it to the Hockey Gods and win, despite all their injured players.

The Columbus Blue Jackets

The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the Blue Jackets they were getting healthy.

Just as everything starts coming up Lumbus, the team announces that Boone Jenner would again miss time. About 1-2 months with a stress fracture in his back. I'd say they just can't catch a break, but that's apparently the opposite of true. Jenner joins Artem Anisimov, Scott Hartnell, Brian Gibbons, Mark Letestu, and Ryan Murray on the shelf. That's not even counting the absence of Nathan Horton, who may be done for his career. (Side note: read that last story if you haven't already. It's heartbreaking.)

They just haven't gotten the memo that injuries should still be causing them to lose. Since playing the Preds at very end of November, Columbus hasn't lost a game in regulation. Playing Nashville seems to be the cure for losing teams, right Toronto?

The Jackets are 8-0-1 in the month of December, which includes a seven game winning streak that was just broken by the Washington Capitals on Thursday. No matter, they decided to start another one with a shootout win against the Blackhawks on Saturday. It's something they've been getting a lot of, recently. Of the nine games this month, seven of them have gone to overtime or a shootout, including the last six in a row.

Don't let the standings fool you, this isn't a pushover team. Remember, this should have been a playoff team, and they have certainly been playing like it recently. Expect Sergei Bobrovsky in net this time.

The Nashville Predators

You'd imagine we'll start seeing more of Carter Hutton soon, whether it's tonight or tomorrow. Nashville's schedule has been extremely light with back-to-backs so far this year, and there are three of them coming up in the next two weeks.

Unless whatever illness I have is what James Neal has, he should be back in the lineup tonight. Neal, who bridged the end of November and beginning of December with a nine-game goalless drought (seven straight without even a point), has picked up four points in his last four games. Scorers like him a generally very streaky, but he's only on pace for around 50 points this year, which would be low for him.

The culprit? You guessed it, he's not getting as many points on the power play. This season, Neal is right in line with his career average G/60 (1.09) and P/60 (2.10) at even strength, but way off his career man advantage numbers. He's notching about 2.16 points every 60 minutes of power play time, rather than his career 4.25. Pittsburgh certainly helped boost those numbers and we expected it to take a dip, but he's also shooting way less than usual. That's not surprising, since Nashville is 22nd in the league in S/60 on the power play.

So don't worry about Neal. Sure, maybe you'd like to see him above his career rates, rather than right on top of them, but let's not get greedyl. He's still the only Predator other than Filip Forsberg to break double-digits in goals so far, and is on pace for about 30 if absolutely nothing changes.

The good news? The power play has clicked in three of its last four games, with three goals on 13 chances in that span. (Just missing four for 13 by a split second.) That's 23.1% effective, or the same rate that has Columbus sitting at fifth in the league. Granted, they've done that for an entire season. Four games is hardly enough to decide whether they've turned a corner or not, but baby steps in a positive direction are still positive. If this trend continues, look for a lot of guys to start scoring, Mr. Neal included.

UPDATE: Like some of us were speculating after Saturday's win, Craig Smith could stay on the top line.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en data-scribe-reduced-action-queue="><p>Neal not skating with regular unit. Skating with Jarnkrok and Beck. Smith stays on line with Ribeiro and Forsberg. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Preds?src=hash">#Preds</a></p>&mdash; Willy Daunic (@WillyD1025) <a href="https://twitter.com/WillyD1025/status/547068119781769218">December 22, 2014</a></blockquote>
<script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

These are only practice lines, and may not necessarily what will be what happens during the game. But that's, uh, an interesting line.

Sights and Sounds

Early one tonight, boys and girls, so that's a 6 p.m. CST start time on FS-TN and 102.5 The Game. Hopefully you've already taken the week off work so you have no obligations. If you're one of the stiffs like me who has to work, try not to run over any last minutes shoppers while your speeding home to catch the puck drop.