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Nashville Predators vs. Winnipeg Jets Preview: Paging Lines 1 and 2

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The slumping Jets come into Nashville to try their hand at a Nashville team with a sputtering top six.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Nashville Predators start the fourth game of the homestand tonight against the Winnipeg Jets. So far it's been a roller coaster.

Nashville turned out arguably their best performance of the season, yet got blanked 4-0 by the Blues. The Senators looked like they were going to continue the embarrassment until the flood gates opened in the good guy's favor. Seven goals found themselves behind Craig Anderson. Thursday was a paint drying and grass growing contest in which the Maple Leafs prevailed in the shootout.

1-1-1 on the homestand with two games left to play.

Tonight is only the third game of division play for the Predators tonight. Dallas has separated themselves from the herd so far, though they have two games in hand on the Preds. St. Louis, Minnesota and Nashville are lumped together in the juicy middle, with Winnipeg and Chicago within spitting distance. The Jets are just three points behind Nashville (with two extra games played) and would love to take advantage of an opportunity to inch ever closer.

It's too early in the season to play a game with any real implications, but it's an important one to win nonetheless.

The Winnipeg Jets

For many, the 2016 Jets are one of a bubble team in the Central. They broke a lengthy playoff drought last year, both for the franchise and the city, but are saddled in a rough division where it could be hard to take steps forward. Depending on whom you discuss them with, Winnipeg is either the sixth-best team in the conference or poised to return to the postseason and win a round, maybe more.

So far they've been holding up to their bubble status. They've played well enough to remain relevant and be considered a good team, but it hasn't vaulted them up in the standings. Again, most of that is due to their Central brethren doing nothing but winning hockey games, but that's a hurdle they are going to have to overcome.

It's not for lack of trying, though. Current three-game skid aside, they've played some very tough opponents to begin the year (with a few not so tough ones) and still hold an 8-7-2 record. Five players have broken the 10 point barrier so far, (with Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Scheifele at nine) and Blake Wheeler is leading the charge with 20 already on the year. In fact, the entire first line of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Wheeler are tearing up the ice, with 20 goals, 29 assists and 49 points between them. There's no comparison against Nashville's first line right now, currently with 26 points.

Even their second line with diminutive dark necromancer Mattheir Perreault, Mark Scheifele and possibly under-discussed Nikolaj Ehlers is outscoring Nashville's top guns. 19-year-old Ehlers, the 9th overall pick from 2014, broke a four-game pointless streak against Dallas on Thursday, but as started as Jets fans had hoped with 10 points in his first 17 games. Keep your eye on number 27.

As always, the big question with the ThrashJets lies in the crease. Ondrej Pavelec is up to his usual trick withs a .905 Sv% in 11 games started. Second-year player Michael Hutchinson is fairing much better (.928 Sv% in six games started). With Pavelec hitting unrestricted free agency at the end of this campaign, it's probably time to start thinking it may be Hutchinson's turn to take the reins. He's an RFA this year.

All this to say that even though the Jets are slumping, it won't be an easy game. Usually with these two teams it never is.

The Nashville Predators

Take a look at this:

Woof. For an entirely uneventful game, the Predators had a ton of shot attempts. Like, a ton. That's to be expected against a team like Toronto. However, like we mentioned postgame, the Leafs did a great job of limiting Nashville's dangerous chances.

Four shots in the high danger area, a few more outside of that, but majority of the 5v5 attempts came from areas where the puck isn't going to go in the net very much. That's Mike Babcock hockey, and it worked.

Winnipeg does not give up a lot of opportunities, either. They are 10th in SA60 and 9th in CA60, though dead average when allowing scoring chances. So Nashville will not only have to find a way to get shots through, but make them count.

That starts with the top six. It's starting to get beaten to death, but look at these numbers and despair:

  • Filip Forsberg: 0 goals, 4 assists, 4 points last 9 games.
  • James Neal: 2 goals, 3 assists, 5 points last 9 games.
  • Mike Fisher: 1 goal, 1 assist, 2 points last 9 games.
  • Colin Wilson: 1 goal, 3 assists, 4 points last 9 games.
  • Mike Ribeiro: 1 goal, 4 assists, 5 points last 9 games.
  • Craig Smith: 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points last 9 games.
Hot starts aside, there isn't a whole lot going on for them right now. Smith and Forsberg especially are mired in a bad goal scoring drought, even though their underlying numbers and their play on ice seems to say and show otherwise. I still very much believe if either of them gets one, many more will come. The season is full of peaks and valleys, especially for guys who score 25 goals, but even though these streaks end it's disheartening to see.

Maybe it's time to reunite the NeRF line, or swap around Neal and Smith. At this point, anything should be tried to get some chemistry going. The fourth line isn't going to score every game, the third line is a mystery, and the defense is good, but it shouldn't be leaned on for all the offensive output.

Tonight could be the night they break through. But if they don't, Peter Laviolette is going to have to contemplate some serious changes.

The Important Stuff

It's a Saturday night game against a Canadian opponent, which means an early start time. Be in front of your TVs or radios at 6 p.m. local time and tune into FS-TN or 102.5 The Game for the action.