Buckle up, the division leaders are in town tonight.
In what feels like an annual tradition, the Nashville Predators and the Chicago Blackhawks will face-off in a Central Division showdown between Christmas and New Year’s. The Blackhawks are tightly hanging onto first place in the Central, as the Minnesota Wild have won eleven straight games to pull within a mere point with three games in hand. On the other side, the Predators are currently sitting outside of a playoff spot and are playing uninspired hockey.
Both teams need these two points tonight, but who will want them more?
The Blackhawks returned from the Christmas break to a 3-1 loss at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night. Although they held Finnish phenom Patrik Laine pointless, the Blackhawks also left pointless.
Nevertheless, the Blackhawks are 6-2-2 in their last ten games and have been playing well with the return of Jonathan Toews. Toews, arguably the best captain in the NHL, had been out for a while nursing an injury, but is back to leading the Blackhawks on the ice as well as off of it. In the seven games since his return he has only posted three points, but he has begun looking much more comfortable on the ice.
Furthermore, if there was any team in the league that could lose an elite forward and be fine, it would be the Blackhawks. Between him, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Artemi Panarin, and Artem Anisimov, there is no lack of depth among their top-six forwards. Panarin, who has 37 points in 37 games, also just signed a two-year $6 million extension yesterday. For a player who has been lighting up every team in the NHL the past season and a half, one has to believe he could earn more. Then again, not every team gives one the chance to win a cup every season like the Blackhawks do.
Remember that inspiring 6-3 comeback win against the St. Louis Blues that was supposed to be the turning point of the season? Well, the Predators have since proved that game to be a mere swivel on a path of mediocrity. Albeit having games in hand, the Predators are, at this moment, the second-worst team in the Central Division.
Despite being utterly inept in shootouts and overtime, the Predators have a large 13 losses in regulation staring them in the face. This is a team that is under .500 when adding in the 6 overtime and shootout losses. Furthermore, since that 6-3 comeback win over the Blues, the Predators are a lethargic 2-2-2.
Star defenseman P.K. Subban has been down and out for a large part of that stretch, but while other iterations of the Predators have had the “next man up” mentality, it has been notably absent. Who has stepped in to fill P.K.’s shoes? Who has became the difference maker in his absence? Nobody. Pekka Rinne, Viktor Arvidsson, and James Neal look as if they are a crew of three tugging along a group of passengers. Imagine the Predators’ record were it not for those three individuals.
Simply put, the Predators are not playing inspired hockey. They are more than talented enough to be the best team in the NHL, especially with Pekka Rinne being himself again this season. Nevertheless, something appears to be amiss. Is there a fear of failure? A lack of belief? I do not know. However, if the Nashville Predators want to prove that they are better than they have been, that the sum of their parts is truly what everyone predicted at the beginning of the season, there must be consistent excellence, and they need to show that excellence tonight.
Reasons to Watch
- What lines will Peter Laviolette play tonight? Will there be more mixing and matching, or does James Neal play on the first line again?
- Also, can we get a rematch of the Neal-Toews fight?
- The Blackhawks are an exciting and talented team. One can hate the Blackhawks as much as one would like, but they are absolutely worth watching.
Gameday Hockey Lingo Word of the Day
Example: “Yowza, Toews’ lip is going to need some zippers after that punch from Neal!”
Sights And Sounds
You can (and should) head downtown to Bridgestone Arena for the game, but if circumstances otherwise prevent you from doing so, the game will be on on FS-TN and you can listen to it on 102.5 The Game. Puck drops at 7:00 pm.