Tonight the Nashville Predators (43-28-6) travel to Pittsburgh to play the Penguins (42-24-11) in a game where both teams are fighting uphill battles for their respective division crowns. The Predators trail the Winnipeg Jets by two points with the same number of games played and two points ahead of the St. Louis Blues, who have a game in hand on them, while the Penguins are five back of Washington with a game in hand of their own. Whoever wins tonight is going to get a huge boost in their quest to land back on top.
Although games against the Penguins have developed into feisty affairs for the Predators in the past, tonight is a game where there is too much on the line to dive into that emotion. It is critical that not only the Predators dodge a matchup with St. Louis, who have held the Predators in check this second half of the season, but also to snatch home ice advantage away from the Jets should they meet in the second round. Two points tonight makes accomplishing that task significantly more achievable.
The Pittsburgh Penguins
Just last Thursday the Penguins rolled into Nashville, taking two points from the Predators in a 2-1 shootout win. The Predators' offense could not find a groove and was challenged by the Penguins in the neutral zone and high in the offensive zone, leading to many low-danger shots that had little chance of beating goaltender Matt Murray. The lone goal came with three minutes remaining as Ryan Ellis, skating all the way to the goal line near the right corner, somehow sneaked the puck through an opening. The Penguins dominated overtime, but could not beat Pekka Rinne. Rinne arguably played one of his best games of the season but, come the shootout, none of the three Predators shooters could help Rinne out with a goal.
It is always interesting when two teams play each other in rapid succession during the regular season because it feels more like playoff hockey. The Predators and Penguins each have been granted time to look back at what transpired just last week, make adjustments, and now see where the cards fall. Sidney Crosby was denied multiple times on the back doorstep of Rinne’s net, so one adjustment the Predators hopefully make is keeping a keener eye out for Pittsburgh’s star center.
Another big adjustment for the Predators would be to try and dump the puck more and simply get pucks deep. It sounds so simple and, when the opposing defense consists of players like Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson who are going to make mistakes, the Predators should want to challenge them. The weakest part of the Penguins is undoubtedly their defense. Getting pucks deep and battling them in the corners is how the Predators can attack that chink in the Penguins’ armor.
The Nashville Predators
In a quiet week for the Predators so far, they have only played the Minnesota Wild, earning an ugly 1-0 win. Ryan Johansen had the lone goal for the Predators. a shorthanded goal. Juuse Saros was stellar in net, earning his third shutout of the season as he turned away all 29 of Minnesota’s shots.
A real question that the Predators need to answer as quickly as possible is why the goals have stopped coming from the offense. Aside from the trainwreck on the power play that is worse than letting a baby loose in a china shop, the Predators’ forwards have not scored at even strength in the last three games. The vaunted JOFA line has fought for some chances, but even their form seems to be a little off. Head coach Peter Laviolette’s constant juggling of the bottom nine forwards certainly is not helping matters either, with players constantly striving to find chemistry with new linemates.
Winger Rem Pitlick made his debut with the Predators on Monday night in Minnesota after completing his season with the University of Minnesota. It was a very 1980 Herb Brooks move by Laviolette to call up a Golden Gopher and toss him into an established lineup, but other than one bad penalty Pitlick did not appear terribly out of his element. The 5’11” winger scored 45 points in 38 games for the Gophers this season and drove the Minnesota team to a much better record than a number of college hockey pundits (myself included) projected.
Additionally, Dante Fabbro is finally with the Predators after Boston University lost to Northeastern in the Hockey East semi-finals by a score of 2-1 in overtime. While David Poile has mentioned that he wants to get Fabbro some playing time, Laviolette may feel that Fabbro, as a defender, needs a little more time to learn the system that the Predators use. It would be bold to start Fabbro tonight but, with the third pairing already having some issues, maybe such a start would not be unrealistic to expect.
Will Pitlick start again tonight? What a way that would be for a talented, young player to enter the NHL: in the heat of a playoff race, playing your first NHL game in the city where you just finished college, and in your second game playing Sidney Crosby. If Fabbro starts tonight, his first game will include the task of defending Crosby. Welcome to the show, kids.
Reasons to Watch
- The Predators need two points. They need to beat the Penguins to get them. It should be a fierce match.
- Just because I think that the Predators need to keep their emotions down tonight doesn’t meant they will. Blood could catch fire, as these two teams simply do not like each other.
- This being the first game of a back-to-back for the Predators, hosting the Columbus Blue Jackets tomorrow night, there are interesting roster questions. Which game will Juuse Saros start in? Will Rem Pitlick start again tonight? How about Dante Fabbro? Maybe one of these two next days they start to give a body a rest?
I am unsure what I will be eating, because as soon as this is submitted I’m jumping in my car and driving down from Columbus to Nashville! Tomorrow night I’ll be attending my first Predators home game since their 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils at the end of the inaugural season. Before the next season, my family moved north to Milwaukee. So, finally, my 20 year tenure in Barry Trotz’s doghouse comes to a conclusion.
(Wait, Laviolette left me up there too? Ugh.)
Sights and Sounds
The puck drops at 6:00 Central tonight in Pittsburgh. Fox Sports Tennessee will broadcast the game while 102.5 The Game will carry it over the radio.