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Nashville Predators vs. Minnesota Wild Preview: Northern Exposure

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The Preds look to build off of two solid performances this week as they take on the Wild tonight in Smashville.

The Preds and Mike Fisher will try to fight off the Wild on Thursday night.
The Preds and Mike Fisher will try to fight off the Wild on Thursday night.
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Nashville Predators will look to improve their points lead in the Central division to double-digits tonight as they welcome the Minnesota Wild. The Wild will make their first visit to the Bridge this year, with Nashville taking the first two games in Minnesota.

Also visiting Bridgestone Arena for the first time this year is the NBC Sports broadcast crew. Expect the following to happen:

  • An in-game discussion about James Neal that will be more about Sidney Crosby and the Penguins than it will be about James Neal.
  • Video footage of Peter Laviolette winning the Stanley Cup accompanied by a compare/contrast essay between the 2005-06 Canes and the 2014-15 Predators.
  • A Carrie Underwood sighting followed by a Mike Fisher contract discussion. The phrase "David Poile take the wheel... " will almost certainly be used.
  • A timely camera shot featuring Shea Weber, Roman Josi, and Ryan Suter.

The Minnesota Wild

This is not the same Wild team we saw on December 20th. Or even the same Wild team from January 10th.

No, since we last saw the Wild, they've been playing a lot better. Like a lot better. Take a look at their playoff % chances since Day 1 of the season. That huge dip, around day 90 or so? That's when we last saw them. Since then, they've skyrocketed. So what's changed?

Defensively, they are much improved, allowing a respectable 2.60 goals per game, good for 14th in the league. Casting aside both Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom in favor of Devan Dubnyk had disaster written all over it, but boy has he played well. Sporting a .935 save % this season, Dub may very well save the Wild's season and help carry them to the playoffs. Which is kind of nuts. In this 2014-15 season, Dubnyk has posted an impressive .722 QS%, which surpasses Kuemper's .519% and Backstrom's .143% (ouch) by a wide margin. Just for reference, Pekka Rinne's QS is at .783%. Dubnyk only has 1 RBS (really bad start) in 18 games. Kuemper has 7 in 27 games. Backstrom has 4 in 14 games.

On the other end of the ice, the Wild have increased their scoring output to 2.78 goals per game, which puts them 15th in the league.  Of course you have Zach Parise leading the way with 46 points (25g, 21a), but Nino Niederreiter is quietly becoming a decent goal scorer for the Wild as well. He is 2nd on the team with 19 goals. The goal production drop-off is pretty apparent when you look at the 3rd and 4th lines, but that's common for most teams. The Wild are hoping that new forward Sean Bergenheim, acquired from Florida on Tuesday, will boost their forward depth. Bergenheim isn't a player that significantly improves the caliber of the Wild's offense, but he has scored 12 goals in 23 playoff games, so he can at least bring some veteran playoff experience to the roster.

The Nashville Predators

We looked at the Wild's playoff chances chart, now here's the Preds'.

That, boys and girls, is a wonderful sight.

But, even though the Preds have a sizable lead in the Central Division, Western Conference, and President's Cup races, the footsteps are quickly approaching from many directions. The Kings just landed Andrej Sekera to go along with an eight-game winning streak. The Jets got another forward in Jiri Tlusty. Surely these moves suggest that other teams like the Blues and Hawks (who now have Kane to replace) will certainly make moves to shore up their lineups down the stretch.

The Preds have miles to go before they sleep.They will obviously need to continue this level of play not just to maintain their lead the league, but to ensure they don't lose any steam before the playoffs. It won't be easy, and they will need certain players to step up for it to happen. Some players that I would like to see make a difference in the next few weeks:

  1. Mike Santorelli: if you've watched his first couple of games back as a Predator, you are sure to notice that his effort and ability are not lacking. He has done an excellent job on that third line forechecking, forcing turnovers, and leading transitions... but no goals to show for it. A lot of that has been bad luck. He should have had at least a couple of goals by now. I bet he gets one tonight.
  2. Seth Jones: one of the few Preds on a bad streak. Maybe the defensive shuffling is messing with him a bit? It has to be a little jarring going from Volchenkov to Ekholm to Franson, right? Maybe that's it. Either way, Seth needs to be a bit more consistent in his defensive play and a lot less risky in his offensive play.
  3. Paul Gaustad: remember back in October, when the 4th line was busting heads, scoring goals, and flexing #grit muscles? Goose was a big part of that, so let's see that again.

Reasons To Watch

  • 20 Goal Club Induction? Colin Wilson and Craig Smith are each 1 goal away from joining Filip Forsberg and James Neal in the 20 goal club.The most 20 goal scorers the Preds have had in a season was six in 2006-07. Pop-quiz hot shot: can you name all six?
  • By the way, the next two players closest to 20 goals would be Shea Weber (14) and Mike Fisher (13). Tying that 2006-07 mark may be difficult. Breaking it will be even harder. Better get to work, gentlemen!
  • 50 Shots of Shea: Someone on Twitter pointed out that even with Weber missing approximately 17 minutes of the game on Tuesday, he still finished with 9 shots in 16:35 ice time. That's basically a shot every 2 minutes. If he had maintained that rate and played the full game, he would have registered somewhere around 14 shots. Wowza.

Pre-Game Music For Your Listening Enjoyment

Gary Clark Jr. is the Filip Forsberg of blues guitar.

The Important Details

Our one and only NBC Sports national broadcast for this regular season. Puck drops at 7:30 p.m. CST and 102.5 The Game will have your radio broadcast.