The day we've been waiting for since summer has arrived at last:
James Neal finally gets to play against former Pittsburgh teammates Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.
Fine, Barry Trotz going to be coaching a game from the visitor's bench at Bridgestone Arena for the first time ever. With him will be former Nashville mainstays Mitch Korn and Lane Lambert, along with noted Predators' hero Joel Ward, and of course Jack Hillen and Michael Latta. Oh right, and then there's that whole thing about Swedish Kid that I'm sure will be as ubiquitous as a Taylor Swift song.
You've heard nothing but storylines and narratives about this game dating back to last week (and beyond). Yet, at its core, this is a Friday night hockey game against two extremely well rounded teams, and one of them is going to be facing their biggest adversity of the season. (More narratives!) Nashville gets to face a surging Washington team without the help of Pekka Rinne. If the Predators want to prove they're more than Rinne, a win tonight would put the naysayers on alert.
Let's dive in.
Trotz is the fourth coach (and fifth system) the Capitals have had in about four years. He was brought in to forge a new identity to a team that completely lost one under the previous coaching regime. Growing pains were bound to present themselves. The season started out uneven, and included a five-game losing streak to bridge October and November. But slowly, Trotz's "gang mentality" started to take hold and the wins started coming. Perhaps this helped.
Now Washington is one of the hottest teams in the NHL:
Capitals now 14-1-4 in last 19. 32 of 38 possible since Dec. 2.— Ted Starkey (@TedStarkey) January 15, 2015
The Capitals have not lost in regulation this month, and are seemingly picking up points in every game that they play. Their 52% score adjusted Corsi is miles better than it was last year. Six of their goal scorers have hit double digits, and Alex Ovechkin paces the team with 22. That's tied for fifth in the league (along with Joe Pavelski) and only four behind Tyler Seguin, Steven Stamkos and Rick Nash in the Rocket Richard race. If history is any indication, one game is all Ovechkin needs to tie those guys.
Yet Ovi always seems to overshadow his quieter and chronically under appreciated centerman, Nicklas Backstrom. Despite leading his team in points (42), and being the top performer in his draft class (just look at some of those names) Backstrom was left off the All-Star roster again. A decision all of his teammates could hardly believe. He doesn't seem to mind though, and will most likely go back to silently adding to his 536 points in 538 games. That's damn impressive.
Thanks to giving Orpik and Niskanen the equivalent of a small country, their defense is currently seventh in the league in goals allowed per game. Splitting up John Carlson and Karl Alzner with those two has led to a quality top four, and even pushed Mike Green to a third pairing D. That's some impressive depth they haven't had in decades. Of course, like Nashville, a big reason for their minuscule GA/G is between the pipes.
Braden Holtby is likely to get the start tonight, which would be his 21st in a row. (27th straight appearance, a franchise record.) He's done nothing but play great hockey since stumbling a little bit to start the season. In his past 20 starts, Holtby is 14-2-4 with a .934 Sv% and a 1.98 GAA, according to Adam Vingan. Oh yeah, and add three shutouts into the mix. The Caps' backup, Justin Peters, hasn't played since late November, and got a conditioning stint down in AHL Hersey last weekend, where he played well. Trotz has already said Peters will get a start this weekend, but you get the feeling he'd want his ace to give him a chance to win this one tonight.
Trotz's tenure so far hasn't been without the quirks fans saw in Nashville over the years, though. There are the scratches, not playing rookies, and inexplicable line combinations everyone got used to down here. At one point, both Evgeny Kuznetzov and Andre Burakovsky were sitting in the press box after swapping in and out at center. However, now they're both playing prominent roles (Burakovsky on the top line and Kuznetzov centering the second) and Trotz is successfully rolling four lines every game.
Still, the team as a whole looks better than it has in years, and Barry Trotz could be the best thing to happen to the Capitals in a long time.
The Nashville Predators
And so it begins.
The time in the season the Predators hoped would never come. The dark times. The times without Pekka Rinne.
On one hand, the timing couldn't have been better with the sparse amount of games because of the All-Star break. On the other, Rinne is responsible for every single one of Nashville's wins so far this year. Carter Hutton believes in his play and feels good about his game, even if he hasn't gotten the results. Which is good, because he doesn't have a say in the matter any more. The crease is his for potentially the next few weeks.
He and Marek Mazanec will likely split goaltending duties this weekend, as Nashville flies to Detroit for a game tomorrow night. Maz hasn't seen action since being sent down to Milwaukee for good pretty much exactly a year ago.
Want something to make you feel a little bit better? The Predators are scoring three goals a game. Both special teams are improving and Colin Wilson is on a tear right now. No one expects either of the goaltenders to be as good as Rinne. Hell, sometimes we don't even think Rinne should be as good as Rinne. However, if the are able to put forth even a decent effort every night, the Preds can still win.
Don't be surprised if there are more than a couple of losses over the next couple of weeks, but the bottom shouldn't fall out either. Peter Laviolette has built a well-oiled machine, and it's been succeeding in concert with Rinne, not because of him.
Plus, Nashville is one a six-game home win streak and are 17-1-2 overall on Broadway. Home ice will be crucial tonight, especially when it comes to Laviolette taking advantage of getting Shea Weber and Roman Josi out against Ovechkin and Backstrom. But, like mentioned above, the Caps have four lines at can strike at any given time. Keep an eye out for the chess match that is likely to take place within the game.
Reasons to Watch the Game
This is still the best thing to happen all season. Can Trotz top it tonight?
Oh, I think he can.
Did You Know?
Filip Forsberg can trace his NHL lineage back to Scott Stevens? And David Poile plays a big part in more ways than one.
Poile drafts Stevens in 1982. Poile then drafts Brandon Witt in 1993 with one of the first-round picks received from the Blues when they signed Stevens as an RFA. 13 years later Poile, now the GM of the Predators, sends a first-round pick to Washington in exchange for Witt, which the Capitals use to draft Semyon Varlamov.
After several years in the Washington system, Varlamov is dealt to Colorado in the summer of 2011 for a first-round pick, which turns into Forsberg. On the following trade deadline, Poile would once again play a part in the pick, as he acquires Forsberg for Martin Erat and Michael Latta. So after all this time, Poile is still benefiting from drafting Scott Stevens so long ago.
Sights and Sounds
This should draw the attention of the entire hockey world. FS-TN and 102.5 The Game have your calls at 7 p.m. CST. NHL Network will also be carrying the game for you yahoos outside of Tennessee.