The Week Ahead: Southern Cookin’
A lengthy homestand is underway, but some tough challenges await Bridgestone Arena
Maybe the Nashville Predators just missed that soulful charm of the mid-south...
After finishing a west coast road trip that Hal Gill described as “meh” (and what I would describe as just straight-up “bad”), the Preds returned to Bridgestone Arena Saturday for their first home game in two weeks. And hey... they won! It wasn’t the cleanest game by any stretch of the imagination, but give Nashville credit for doing something they haven’t been able to do often this season: find a way to pull out a win.
Maybe that’s a good omen for the Preds’ upcoming homestand. Of their remaining eight games left in November, seven will be at Bridgestone.
The bad news? The vast majority of those games are against stiff competition, including three big match-ups this week.
Tuesday, November 15 - vs. Minnesota Wild
Have the Wild underachieved this season? Depends on who you ask. Despite some valid questions about losses from last season’s roster (namely former Smashville Swiss boi Kevin Fiala), many pegged Minnesota as the Central Division’s second-best team behind Colorado. And while you certainly can’t call them bad — they’re 7-6-1 as of this writing, before their Sunday night game against San Jose — they also haven’t looked as polished as last year’s club either.
[Ed.: The Wild built a 2-0 lead before ultimately losing in the shootout to the Sharks, falling to 7-6-2 on the season.]
Part of that might be due to early injury woes. Ryan Hartman, coming off a breakthrough 65-point season, appears to be out long-term. And Jordan Greenway, who a lot of people pegged for a breakout season this year, has only played two games due to separate injury issues. They’re also missing Brandon Duhaime, one of their scrappy, punchy bottom-six wingers.
Still, Minnesota remains a difficult team to play against. Despite getting more dynamic scoring in recent years (Kirill Kaprizov has 10 goals in 14 games this season), the Wild are still built on the backs of their trademark defense. Their 25.9 xGA at even strength are the third fewest allowed by any NHL team this season, and after a rough few outings, Marc-André Fleury has stopped 58 of the last 59 shots he’s faced.
Don’t be surprised if the Preds need another “grind it out” type of performance to pick up the win this time around.
Thursday, November 17 - vs. New York Islanders
Other than their counterparts 50 miles away in New Jersey, perhaps no other team in the NHL have exceeded expectations this season as much as the Islanders. A trendy preseason pick for dead-last in the Metro Division, the Isles find themselves in second place thanks to an 8-2-0 run that includes wins over the Avalanche, Hurricanes, Flames, and Rangers.
What’s behind the hot start in Long Island? First and foremost, excellent goaltending. The duo of Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov has been one of the best in the league. The two have combined for a .921 overall save percentage — 5th best in the NHL — and an even more impressive .861 high-danger save percentage — 2nd best in the NHL. Even when teams are getting quality chances, Sorokin and Varlamov have been there to shut the door.
It also doesn’t hurt that some of the Islanders’ key forwards are back on the scoring pace they had a couple of years ago, when New York made the Eastern Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons. Brock Nelson (17 points), Matthew Barzal (16 points), and Anders Lee (15 points) are all physical forwards who will test the Preds’ ability to keep the front of the net around Juuse Saros or Kevin Lankinen clear.
The one thing working in the Preds’ favor? History. The Predators have won seven straight games against the Islanders dating back to the 2017-18 season. Given the Preds’ start, it would be a great week to push that streak to eight.
Saturday, November 19 - vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
On the other hand, history has NOT been kind to the Predators when it comes to the recent two-time Cup-winners and reigning three-time Eastern Conference champs. The Lightning have won 9 of the past 11 matchups, including both games between these two last season.
The Predators just haven’t matched up well with the speedy, finesse style the Lightning have excelled at in recent seasons. And with many of Tampa’s big guns, namely Nikita Kucherov (6 G, 15 A) off to a red-hot start, every player on that Predators lineup card will be tested yet again.
That being said, if the Preds wanted to get a statement win, there may be some stars aligned in their favor. The Lightning have had some noticeable issues this season. One of those, surprisingly, has been in goal. Andrei Vasilevskiy, normally a brick wall, has been somewhat porous this year, owning a .901 save percentage and allowing at least three goals in eight of his ten starts this season.
Up front, Tampa’s trademark puck possession hasn’t been there either. Their 48.5 CF% is 21st in the NHL (worse than Nashville’s), meaning their opponents are generally getting more offensive chances during games than they are. Still, Tampa is a dangerous team with weapons that can get hot at the drop of a hat. So it could be a very different story come Saturday when these two teams meet at Bridgestone.
What game are you most looking forward to this week, Smashville?