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Nashville Predators vs. Tampa Bay Lightning Preview: Neal Before Us

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The Predators, fresh off a James Neal-fueled win in Ottawa on Saturday, will take on the Lightning at Bridgestone tonight.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Nashville Predators will return home tonight to face the defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning. This will be the toughest match-up of the season so far for the Predators, as the Bolts are 4-2-0 and looking a lot like last year's Stanley Cup runner-up.

The Preds will also be facing injury concern for the first time this season. Not only is Ryan Ellis day-to-day because of puck-to-knee-itis, but Austin Watson and Barret Jackman were also missing from Monday's practice. Supposedly they were only "maintenance days," which for Watson probably means he got some professional work done on that edgy upsweep. If Ellis is out, we could see Victor Bartley for the first time this season.

Pekka Rinne will probably be in goal, having last played against the Islanders on Thursday.

The Tampa Bay Lightning

The race for the Atlantic Division is off to a pacey start between the Lightning and Canadiens. The rest of the division will likely be watching them fight for the division crown all year long. The Lightning have enough firepower to make any team jealous, while the Canadiens lead the league in least goals allowed (7) and goal-differential (+13). Should be a fun fight to watch. And they don't even first play each other until after Christmas.

For the Lightning, Ben Bishop is off to a somewhat shaky start, but there is probably no reason for concern. His .911 save % in 6 games is below his career .918 and should equalize soon. Plus it's only 6 games. His worst start of the year came last Thursday vs. the Dallas Stars, where he let in 5 goals on 22 shots. He bounced back Saturday though, stopping 31 in a win over Buffalo. With Bishop starting all 6 games so far, there's a chance we see Kevin Poulin in goal. He's filling in for Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is still scheduled to be out another month or two after having vascular surgery to remove a blood clot.

Meanwhile, Steven Stamkos is in Rocket Richard form early with 4 goals. He saw some early chemistry with linemate Jonathan Drouin, but as John Fontana at Raw Charge mentions here, Coach Jon Cooper didn't like something and started shuffling the lines. Namely this resulted in Cooper moving Drouin to the bench, but he also split up the Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov line that was so successful late last year. Cooper probably just wasn't happy with the level of production. Or maybe, like Laviolette and the Fisher/Ribs swtich, he was just trying something else because it's so early in the season.

They are still scoring 3.17 goals per game, good for 12th in the league. I don't think they have much to worry about.

The Nashville Predators

Roman Josi is dazzling to watch. 5 points so far this season and hopefully on his way to a career high. About his hot start though: a lot of the reason he is able to let loose is because #6 is backing him up. Shea Weber takes up about 15 feet of the ice with his shoulders. Then, when someone makes him angry, he goes all Hulk-Weber and the real brutality begins. Weber hasn't shown much offensively (the Howitzer has been on standby for the most part) but he has done a lot of dirty work on the defensive end and he leads the team with 25 hits. Ever since Weber became the at-home defenseman that trails late into the offensive zone, Josi has benefited. More puck possession, more room to skate, more passes (and more time to pass), and all of this leads to more points. Hence, Josi finishing with 10 more points than Weber last year.

I realize this isn't really news to anyone. But what I find compelling is the shift in perspective among fans. Even in OTF's own fan-driven performance ranking from yesterday, there you see Josi firmly at the top, with Weber hovering in the mid-to-lower half. Weber's popularity seems to have waned in the opening weeks of the season, and I don't think there are really any stats to back it up, other than offensively.

At even-strength, both players have similar numbers in shots and possession, even if it is only 5 games. 4 of Josi's 5 points have come on special teams, with neither player doing much offensively at even-strength. Weber's role has changed on the power-play as well. "Give it to Shea and get out of the way" has faded, and now we get to watch Roman Josi move the puck from point to slot to side-boards to point to slot to James Neal to the back of the net. The only major difference between the players at this point is point production (Josi) and hits (Weber). I get it, fans like goals. But they also like hits, don't they?

All of this is totally fine, by the way. No one here, especially not me, is telling you who to root for or whose jersey to buy. I just think the shift is interesting.

Here's to rooting on the first co-winners of the Norris Trophy, Shea Weber and Roman Josi!

Reasons To Watch

  • Victor Hedman looks like he'll only miss one game. After leaving Thursday's game against the Stars, Hedman says he "feels great" and could return as soon as tonight. That's a boost to Tampa's lineup, as Hedman's a giant man with extraordinary hockey talent.
  • James Neal was a blast to watch in that game against the Senators. He can be streaky, so let's hope we are in for a long one.
  • The bottom two lines (mostly just Bourque, Watson, Jarnkrok, and Hodgson) have been fighting like crazy to maintain ice-time and it's led to some pretty intense shifts from those guys. Intensity is always fun to watch.
  • The Preds are 4-1-0 in 5 games and taking on one of the best teams in the NHL. That should get your blood pumping. Should be a fun night!

Pre-Game Music

It's been like 3 days, let's DROP THIS GAME ALREADY

The Important Details

Puck drops at 7 PM local time on FS-TN and 102.5 The Game