SENATORS (14-17-4) at PREDATORS (17-10-6)
TV -- SNET-OTT (HD),FS-Tennessee (HD)
Last 10 -- Ottawa 3-4-3; Nashville 7-2-1
Season series -- This is the only meeting of the season between Nashville and Ottawa. The Preds took the only game last season, a wild 6-5 overtime win at Scotiabank Place.
Big story -- With the likely return of starting goaltender Pekka Rinne Thursday night, Nashville will look to end its brief two-game skid in a rare visit by the struggling Senators.
Senators -- With a 3-2 loss at home against Washington in their last game Sunday, the Senators have won just three of their last 10, dropping them eight points in back of first-place Montreal in the Northeast division. As Ottawa searches for an answer to turnaround what had been a promising season as recently as last month, it seems fairly clear that goaltending is the issue. Pascal Leclaire has battled various ailments, Brian Elliott has gotten the majority of the workload of late, and despite a very strong start to the season, the former Wisconsin Badger has struggled in December, losing his last six starts and nine of his last 10. Worse yet for the Sens is they can't simply switch gears between the pipes. While Leclaire has won his last two starts -- and surrendered an impressively low three goals in doing so -- the 2001 first-round draft pick is considered doubtful with a lower-body injury.
The good news is that the Senators' offense has awakened. Ottawa has scored less than three goals in just one of its last six outings, and numerous players are having impressive stretches -- like Chris Neil, who has points in four of his last five games and the always steady Daniel Alfredsson, who has four points in his last four times on the ice. Despite the offensive improvement, the Sens will continue to struggle if their goaltenders don't improve.
Predators -- Nashville was among the hottest teams in the League until five days ago, but after winning five in a row to climb into second place in the Central, the Preds have dropped two games in a row by a combined score of 10-2. Granted, those losses, at home to Los Angeles and at Chicago, came in the face of some stiff competition, but in falling to the Blackhawks on Wednesday night, Nashville was leapfrogged by its division rival and now sits six points back of first-place Detroit.
With Thursday's visit by Ottawa coming less than 24 hours after the Preds' loss in Chicago, Nashville will need a short memory on such a quick turnaround. Despite those two losses, however, there is reason for optimism in that starting goaltender Pekka Rinne, who was activated from IR on Wednesday, appears set to return to action. While Anders Lindback performed admirably in his absence -- he was 6-2-1 in Rinne's stead -- having their main man back in net could provide the Predators with a nice mental boost.
Who's hot -- Defenseman Erik Karlsson has given the Sens a potent scoring force on the blue line with 8 points in his last seven games. ... Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter has eight points over a current six-game point streak for Nashville, while Martin Erat has 10 points in his last 10 games.
Injury report -- Patric Hornqvist (upper body), Cody Franson (personal) and Steve Sullivan (lower-body) all returned to action Wednesday in Chicago. Rinne was reactivated and could get the start. .. Aside from the absence of Leclaire, Ottawa should have a full lineup.
Stat pack -- Ottawa's goaltending has cost it dearly lately, as the Sens' offense has been radically more productive in the last two weeks. In its last six games Ottawa has lit the lamp 20 times -- an average of 3.33 times per game. Over the course of the entire season the Senators are only scoring an average of 2.31 goals each time out, fourth-worst in the League.
Puck drop -- With a chance to stay in the East playoff hunt slipping away for Ottawa, a strong performance Thursday night is key to turning around the Sens' fortunes, particular with a strong test a visit to Music City presents. But with Nashville setting its sights on a deep playoff run this season, it seems unlikely that the Preds would roll over at the prospect of a third straight loss.