For the third time in just over two weeks, the Predators and Blues square off again in the last game of a franchise-tying longest road trip for Nashville. The Blues have owned Nashville so far this season winning both games; one home, one away. Game time is at 7 p.m central and can be heard on 102.5 the Game locally and seen in sparkling High Def on FS Tennessee with Pete Weber and Terry Crisp.
The St. Louis Blues continue to be one of the toughest draws for any Western Conference team with a record of 6-2-0, good enough for second in the division behind red-hot Chicago and 4th overall in the conference. The emergence of Vladimir Tarasenko has been a revelation for St. Louis as the 16th pick in the 2010 entry draft has 5 goals and 5 assists pacing the Blues with 10 points. Tarasenko is second in rookie scoring behind Tampa Bay’s Cory Conacher (12 points).
Nashville has picked up the pace and created a modest winning steak in back-to-back shootout contests. An eight round shootout decided the winner of the Predators/Kings matchup with Sergei Kostitsyn netting the game winner and juke-ing Jonathan Quick out from under his skates. Craig Smith would pot the game winner against the San Jose Sharks with some speed and a nifty backhand roof over Antti Niemi.
St. Louis has lost only 1 out of their last 5 games (5-3 loss to Detroit) and Halak has been placed on injured reserve while the Blues have called up Jake Allen from Peoria to backup Brian Elliott. All but two players have chipped in offensively for the Blues this season (exceptions: Scott Nichol and Kris Russell) and only 3 players have a minus +/- rating. This game will be a grudge match of similar styles and coaching with Hitchcock and Trotz playing their perennial game of chess. Nashville got thumped 4-0 their last outing at ScottTrade Center so look for a little redemption for the Predators on the heels of two wins against stiff West Coast competition.
Looking at the Blues: It comes down to weaponry and the Blues have that en masse for the second year in a row. The Blues were formidable with forwards like Backes, McDonald (when healthy), Berglund, Perron and Oshie. Now the sensational play of Tarasenko and the “new” wonder twins on defense in Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo have given Hitchcock a treasure trove of options on defense and offense.
Oshie continues to be a nemesis to the Nashville Predators and Elliott has played extremely well against the Nashville forwards not allowing any goals so far on the year or in the shootout.
Looking at the Predators: The Predators have been bitten by the injury bug early this season losing leading point scorer Patric Hornqvist for at least 3-4 weeks, and in the San Jose Sharks game Erat was also out of the line-up after getting injured in practice. The Predators stepped up against the Sharks without their top two scorers and shut them down defensively. Kostitsyn finally got on the board with a goal set up by Colin Wilson, who will have even more pressure on him to succeed with the absence of Erat and Hornqvist.
Rinne is also coming around and looking like the two-time Vezina finalist that Nashville has relied on to steal games and points. In his last two shootouts, Rinne has been able to close the door and bail out the Predators with timely saves, especially against the Sharks where some of the best shootout specialists are employed (Handzus, Pavelski etc).
The expected lineup for the Predators (had 7 defenseman against San Jose):
For the Blues to win: Stick with what worked a week ago. I wrote that Hitchcock likes to “play it like a game of checkers that never moves his back row.” His defense-first mentality always has a safety net on the back-end with two defenders rarely cheating down the boards and always set up to keep the puck in the opposing zone. By keeping this safety net in place, Nashville was never able to have any odd-man rushes the other way because St. Louis has fast enough forwards to get back and help out the two defenders staying at home.
Elliott will more than likely get the start for St. Louis after holding his own against the Red Wings last Friday and St. Louis had to make the call to the AHL Peoria squad for Jake Allen as backup. Elliot has stoned the Predators already this season for the 32:07 he’s played against Nashville including two stops in the shootout in Nashville’s second game of the year.
For the Predators to win: It is about stepping up. Without Hornqvist and the possibility of being without Martin Erat, the Predators forward group as a whole has to bring their A-Game to match the intensity and skill of the Blues. Nashville has to play mistake-free hockey as any neutral zone turnover or bad board read could end up in the back of the net. Hitchcock looks for any weakness and monotony in a team to exploit and his team is quick to jump at the chance to chip the puck the other way for offensive flurries.
Rinne’s continuation of “Beast-Mode” will have to endure to steal yet another game from a potent team in St. Louis. If the Predators can score early and take the crowd out of the game, the defense and Pekka Rinne have to hold on and gut out a win, preferably in regulation. The Predators have relinquished 3rd period leads in four different games this year, all of which went to a shootout and 3 of which they lost. It’s closing time and we are not referring to the Semisonic song here.