The Blue Jackets have a tall task ahead of them tonight, facing a high-flying Nashville team that has undoubtedly been one of the NHL's biggest surprises this season. This is nothing like the Predators teams you knew from the Jackets' days in the Central Division; they have a new coach in charge (Peter Laviolette) who has some offensive resources to work with, led by rookie sensation Filip Forsberg, who happens to currently be the league's rookie scoring leader.
Nashville is showing little sign of slowing down after its hot start, and part of that is because this is just a deep team. The Predators added offense this summer, trading for James Neal in a draft-day blockbuster and signing veterans Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy and Mike Ribiero in hopes of bolstering one of the organization's longest-running ailments.
On defense, the Predators are anchored by Shea Weber and it's been the emergence of Swiss defenseman Roman Josi that has given them additional balance on the back end. And Nashville's great equalizer is without question goaltender Pekka Rinne, who is one of the best in the business.
Columbus won the second of two meetings between the two teams last season, and it was a thriller at Bridgestone Arena. Rinne and Sergei Bobrovsky went save-for-save in hockey's version of a pitcher's duel until Artem Anisimov broke a scoreless tie with 6:25 left in the third period. He took a drop pass and darted toward the net, tucking a backhander underneath Rinne's pad for the game's only goal, locking up two huge points for the Blue Jackets in their playoff push.
If the hiring of Laviolette was the first brick laid in Nashville's makeover, the acquisition of James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins comes in a close second. A regular 30-goal scorer and one of the most dangerous snipers in the game, Neal brings the Predators a game-breaking element up front with one of the league's best releases and the ability to score from just about anywhere. His nine goals are second only to Forsberg, and he's already fired 77 shots on goal in 22 games this season. This is a player the Blue Jackets are very familiar with and will need to keep contained if they're to have success tonight.
At the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals drafted a talented Swedish forward outside the top 10, but traded him to Nashville a year later for Martin Erat. Forsberg has blossomed with the Predators, currently leading the team in scoring with 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) and anchoring the team's top line. The 20-year-old has proven to be able to handle just about any assignment, and sports a ridiculous 15.4 shooting percentage to go along with a +19 rating. He scored the GWG in OT against Edmonton on Thursday, which was the only goal in a 1-0 victory. Forsberg already has seven multi-point games this season, including a pair of three-point efforts.
Shutting down the Predators' No. 1 line
Gone are the days when the Predators were content to grind out a 2-1 or 3-2 win at Bridgestone Arena; these Predators want to push the pace, get pucks on the net and make opponents uncomfortable with their attacking style. The onus is on the Blue Jackets' forwards and defense to work together and take the time and space away from Nashville's top offensive weapons, and that begins with a collaborative effort inside their own zone. Clean breakouts, communication and sacrifice will go a long way toward silencing Nashville's offense tonight.