Tonight the Nashville Predators (42-27-5) host the Pittsburgh Penguins (39-24-11) in yet another highly anticipated matchup against an Eastern Conference opponent. On Tuesday night, the Predators defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-0, jumping out into an early lead and “turtling up” the majority of the final two periods. Meanwhile, the Penguins are coming off of a 3-2 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.
There is no doubt that the ghosts of the Predators’ Stanley Cup Final run linger, and never are they more present than when the Penguins come back to Nashville. How will the Predators fare with those ghosts tonight? Will the Penguins leave yet another horror story behind?
The Pittsburgh Penguins
While many teams have been bitten by the injury bug, the Penguins have been hit especially hard on the blueline. Justin Schultz just recently returned from injury and, since his return, the pairings have been jumbled as Head Coach Mike Sullivan has searched for the right combinations. Olli Määttä has been out of the lineup since February 11th and Kris Letang just returned to action on Tuesday after a long absence. Letang played with Brian Dumoulin for the majority of the season as the top pairing and, with Letang returning, Dumoulin will be happy to have his partner back.
The injury bug lead the Penguins to make a bizarre move at the trade deadline, picking up Erik Gudbranson from the Vancouver Canucks. One of the statistically worst defenders in the NHL this season, the move was baffling. With Määttä and Jack Johnson in the fold, the Penguins already had one of the slowest defenses in the league. After adding Gudbranson, the Penguins’ lethargic blue line woes have only been worsened.
Nonetheless, this team still has Sidney Crosby. They still have Evgeni Malkin. Provided those two cogs of the offense stay healthy, the Penguins are going to be an elite team. There’s a reason why those two players have three Stanley Cups: because they are complete NHL professionals. The Predators will have to stop them from getting comfortable if they want to walk away with two points tonight.
The Nashville Predators
Coming off of a 3-0 win over a Toronto Maple Leafs team that has cruised through the Eastern Conference, the Predators should have a little more confidence tonight hosting the Penguins. Ryan Johansen had two assists while Wayne Simmonds scored his first goal as a Nashville Predator. Simmonds looked ecstatic to finally get the monkey off his back with his goal. Additionally, Brian Boyle and Filip Forsberg each tallied for the boys in gold.
As the season winds down, each game is becoming ever more important for the Predators. Now, winners of three straight games, the Predators sit only three points behind the Jets, who have one game in hand. The central division crown will still be hard for the Predators to win, but in stringing together their last three wins, they’ve given themselves a fighting chance.
Of course, the Jets have won their last four games and seem to be hitting a stride too. Alternatively, the Blues are floundering, going 4-4-2 in their last ten games. Still, given the Predators’ performances against the St. Louis Blues this last month, the Predators will want to avoid them and ensure home ice should they face the Winnipeg Jets in the second round.
With ten games to go, Ryan Johansen is two points shy of breaking his previous high with the Nashville Predators and is eleven away from his career high. He has been the best player on the ice for many games this season and has rounded out the fundamentals of his game. Rather than relying on raw skill and vision, Johansen has vastly improved his decision making and footwork this season. Although he cannot dance around the ice like P.K. Subban, Johansen is getting better acceleration from his first three strides and turning on the ice with much greater precision.
Returning to practice today are Zac Rinaldo, Dan Hamhuis, and Austin Watson. While Hamhuis and Rinaldo remain on injured reserve, Watson is eligible to return to the starting lineup at any point in time. For tonight, the lineup looks like it will be the same as it was on Tuesday.
Reasons to Watch
Ready to watch tonight’s game yet?
After some unhealthy meals, I’ll be making my balsamic grilled chicken salad. The Old Fashioneds that I anger-consume while watching the Penguins will fill in the rest of my caloric intake for the evening.
Sights and Sounds
The puck drops in Bridgestone Arena at 7:00 Central. You can watch the game on FS-TN and can listen on the radio at 102.5 The Game.