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Preview: Nashville Predators vs. Columbus Blue Jackets 5/5/21: Magic number five

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The playoffs are within reach.

Nashville Predators v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, folks. After a hectic April occupied by all sorts of things like schoolwork, finals, and the Nashville Predators playing will-they-won’t-they with our hearts, liberation is at hand via a postseason berth. Nashville needs to bank (up to) five points in their next three games to secure the fourth seed in the Central Division, so tonight’s game against the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets is momentous within context (the final two games of the season will be against the powerhouse Carolina Hurricanes). What are the storylines, who are the players to watch, and how can Nashville maneuver themselves to an urgent victory? All that (plus music) below.

The Blue Jackets

The end of John Tortorella’s reign in Columbus is nigh. The Jackets have been officially eliminated from playoff contention after bumbling their way through a catastrophic year. Coming into the 2020 season, the Blue Jackets were built on their defense and the young forward tandem of Oliver Bjorkstrand and Pierre-Luc Dubois. Now, everything is topsy-turvy, with the blue line in tatters (Seth Jones had an awful season, Zach Werenski battled through a hernia, David Savard is gone) and Dubois out (shipped to Winnipeg).

Jarmo Kekäläinen has instead hitched his wagon for the remainder of this season to a group of...capricious young talents in Jack Roslovic, Patrik Laine, and Max Domi. Unsurprisingly, none of these freewheeling, offense-first players have really worked out all that well; aside from a few nice stretches from Ohio native Roslovic, that trio has disappointed. Some of it might have to do with their fit under John Tortorella, whose “tactful” approach to coaching has long been his trademark. This could be the final game this team has with Torts against Nashville, so one of two things could happen. The first is that the veterans in this final three-game stretch might attempt to power Columbus to some final wins under Torts; the second is that the team, fed up with this season, will revolt and produce lackluster performance.

From a Nashville perspective, one thing is for certain: this is a must-win game. The Predators boast a superior roster and the ability to exploit Columbus’s glaring lack of speed. Facing effortless skaters like Roman Josi and Matt Duchene who can create controlled entries at will is a bad matchup for the Jackets from the get-go. Tortorella’s teams typically play very conservatively in terms of their spacing, preferring to opt for disciplined coverage in the defensive zone rather than an imposing neutral zone forecheck. This prevent defense only works if your team plays within its boundaries to a T, and the lack of that structure is something Nashville ought to exploit.

The Predators

Not much has changed for the Preds since the last time these teams faced off. Aside from Colton Sissons missing a game, the advantages and disadvantages that Nashville has here are pretty evident: superior goaltending and speed with inferior situational play. The biggest issue plaguing this team in their recent stretch of winning has been the return of turtling, something that we hadn’t seen a ton of under John Hynes. Monday’s collapse in the third period is emblematic of that vexation; I don’t think anybody would argue that conceding three goals in the third period is acceptable, let alone to one player who hadn’t found the back of the net since March of last year.

So, coming into tonight, what can Nashville hone in on with a brutal series with Carolina looming? The biggest aspect of play that bugs me is the lack of any production via the cycle. Nashville takes the 6th-fewest shots per 60 in the league off of cycle/forechecking plays, a rate comparable to the Ottawa Senators and Anaheim Ducks. While their rush offense isn’t particularly spectacular either, in games I’ve tracked since April 21st around 48% of scoring chances have come via that method of attack. That’s not ideal!

This team has the pieces to roll two quality possession-based lines that are capable of producing in the less-utilized method, so I’d like to see a bit of evolution in that regard tonight. Columbus is a team that regularly allows controlled entries, so Nashville should get plenty of opportunities to test this out.

Projected Lineups (via Daily Faceoff)

Nashville:

Forsberg-Johansen-Tolvanen
Järnkrok-Granlund-Kunin
Cousins-Haula-Duchene
Trenin-Richardson-Jeannot

Josi-Ellis
Ekholm-Carrier
Gudbranson-Benning

Saros

That said: John Hynes has said that Sissons, Dante Fabbro, or both might return tonight.

Columbus:

Robinson-Domi-Björkstrand
Foudy-Texier-Atkinston
Grigorenko-Roslovic-Bemström
Laine-Dalpe-Gerbe

Del Zotto-Jones
Gavrikov-Lehtonen
Kukan-Bayreuther

Merzlikins

Three Big Things

  1. With both Eeli Tolvanen and Filip Forsberg back, it’s time to see the power play clicking on all cylinders again. Nashville found the back of the net on Monday with the skater advantage thanks to that connection, and I have a feeling that’ll be key again tonight.
  2. Does Juuse Saros show signs of fatigue? The Predators are riding their young goalie as far as he’ll take them, and Saros has been a true workhorse before (having played in 47 of 48 regular season games in Finland’s HPK U20 back in the 2014-2015 season), but he’s been run ragged this month. Until the play of the young Finn drops off, John Hynes will likely continue to play him, but is that day approaching or will it remain in the distance?
  3. It’s time for Nashville to play a complete game. After almost dropping the ball on Monday, winning tonight is a must, and sustaining aggression and offensive engagement will contribute to that. I know why coaches and players “turtle,” and I get the mentality of wanting to make fewer mistakes, but by playing an all-defense style for twenty minutes or so, you’re giving the opposing side more opportunities to convert on one of those mistakes by the sheer amount of possession they have. Preserving the approach and execution that allows the team to succeed and gain leads is something they need to adopt.

Game Day Tunes

Time for some music from the GOAT.

Happy game day folks, and as always, go Preds.