Within the same week as playing the Central Division leading Minnesota Wild, the Nashville Predators have been given another challenge in facing another one of the NHL’s elite teams: the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The surprise of the NHL this season, the Columbus Blue Jackets have skyrocketed in the standings. After finishing 27th in the league last season, the Blue Jackets are 2nd behind Washington yet have a game in hand. While numerous analysts tried for the longest time to discredit the success of the Blue Jackets and surmount it to a mere accumulation of luck and playing other teams on their “off nights”, the 16-game winning streak the Blue Jackets went on silenced most of their critics. Despite coming off a 4-2 loss to the New York Islanders, this is a team known to bounce back quickly.
Thankfully, the Predators have also been more resilient as of late. Although they lost to the Buffalo Sabers 5-4 Tuesday night, the team finally shrugged off some of its road woes recently. The Predators completed a brutal five game road trip from Colorado, through western Canada, and finally in Minnesota and finished 4-1-0. While the 5-4 loss definitely hurt, especially since the Predators blew a 4-2 lead, there’s more optimism that this team can fight back and recover. Will they be able to bounce back against the Blue Jackets?
Columbus Blue Jackets
What a difference one season can make.
Former cellar-dwellers, the Columbus Blue Jackets went from one of the worst teams in the NHL to one of the best. Furthermore, unlike the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs or the Edmonton Oilers, the Blue Jackets have done so without having a draft pick become a superstar, as 3rd overall pick Pierre Luc-DuBois is playing another season of juniors right now. Rather, Head Coach John Tortorella has transformed this team from a rag-tag team of castoffs into a band of brothers that find a new way to win every night.
That “new way to win” aspect of the Blue Jackets has been the most baffling part of their success and why many pundits originally resisted crowning the Blue Jackets as one of the NHL’s elite teams. Even Tortorella is still trying to figure out the Blue Jackets.
The only constant on this team is Sergei Bobrovsky, who for my money has been the best goaltender in the NHL this season. Currently, he has a .930 save percentage, 2.04 goals against average, and has 28 wins in 38 games. Bobrovsky is on track to start over 68 games for the Blue Jackets and has been played in both sides of back-to-backs this season. His body of work has been incredibly impressive.
There are a lot of interesting players stepping up for the Blue Jackets this season. Seth Jones has been marvelous, playing with the poise and control of a veteran while being assigned duties in nearly all situations. Zach Werenski has been a rookie marvel, anchoring the first pairing with Jones. Captain Nick Foligno, who many referred to as the least talented captain in the NHL last season after he had trouble bouncing back from a concussion, has posted 38 points in 45 games. Cam Atkinson, the biggest All-Star snub in recent history, has 46 points in 47 games.
However, the biggest difference maker for the Blue Jackets this season has been Sam Gagner. Remember when I wanted Nashville to sign him in the off-season? Remember that? Well, Gagner is currently being paid $650,000 and has 33 points in 46 games. Playing on the fourth line with Lukas Sedlak and former Predator Scott Hartnell, Gagner has really elevated the level of those around them and allows Tortorella to roll four lines. Furthermore, he is being used as a powerplay specialist and is the key reason why the Blue Jackets are first in the NHL with a 25.0% conversion rate on the powerplay. However, the most noteworthy part of his game has been the fight in him. Not the kind of fight where he drops the gloves, but he is an absolute workhorse despite his stature. Watching him, it rarely feels like he goes into a corner for the puck and fails to come out with it.
The Predators will certainly have their hands full tonight.
Can we claim that “the corner” has been turned?
Yes, the Predators blew a two-goal lead against Buffalo Tuesday night upon returning from a five game road trip, but there’s a different feeling about this hockey club right now. Despite having an abysmal road record before heading out west and into Canada, the Predators managed a 4-1-0 record and crawled back into 3rd place in the Central Division, overtaking the St. Louis Blues. The Predators, at 23-17-7, are still under .500, but the team is finally starting to get healthy and, more importantly, are learning how to become resilient.
In past game previews, I have criticized this team for having nobody other than Pekka Rinne to step up in the absence of others. Then Viktor Arvidsson decided to be the best forward on the team. Then Juuse Saros emerged as a goalie reliable enough to offer Pekka Rinne some rest days. Then Austin Watson scored three goals in three games. Then Filip Forsberg became consistent again. Then Ryan Ellis made his case for replacing the team plane as he carried the Predators through western Canada.
The point is, even though they lost to Buffalo, players are starting to step up and take responsibility for the team’s success, driving the team onward and upwards. This is a young and emotional team. To call this team a stoic bunch would be to sell someone the Brooklyn Bridge. This team has the look of a group with a chip on their shoulder, similar to last February. They look angry (except for Viktor Arvidsson, who can probably never be angry and is just the happiest human to ever live).
We all know how this team plays when its angry. Was there a more dangerous player last season for the Predators than an angry James Neal? How has angry Filip Forsberg been the last month? When this team gets mad, they don’t back down. They become resilient. For most of this season, they lost their resilience, but, finally, they have found it once more.
Reasons to Watch
- When was the last time you watched an elite team called the Columbus Blue Jackets? Never? Now’s your “once-in-a-16-years” chance!
- Prince Filip is back. Perhaps he’s been reading a little too much Machiavelli, but Filip Forsberg hasn’t been a benevolent Prince to opposing goaltenders. He’s scored 12 goals over his last 18 games and is back in form.
- Injuries are dwindling! Last game Colin Wilson returned to the lineup and both Roman Josi and Miikka Salomaki are practicing. Could we see the return of either Predator?
- Do you enjoy Team USA? One of their future defensive pairings for the next ten years is playing against the Predators.
- If nothing else, watch for Viktor Arvidsson. Appreciate him. Adore him. He’s the best.
Gameday Hockey Lingo Word of the Day
Definition: One of the better players on a team who is placed on a lower line with two worse players to “babysit” them.
Example: “Sam Gagner is doing quite the job babysitting the Columbus 4th line this season.”
Sights and Sounds
You can head down to Bridgestone Arena for the game at 7:00ct. Otherwise, the game will be televised on FS-TN and available on the radio at 102.5.