The Blue Jackets look to extend their points streak to 10 games, but to do so, they’ll need to take down the last team to defeat them in regulation. The Nashville Predators visit Nationwide Arena for the final game before the NHL’s Christmas break, having won seven of 10 and coming off an overtime victory against the Minnesota Wild.
The Predators are one of the pleasant surprise teams in the NHL this year under new head coach Peter Laviolette. After parting ways with Barry Trotz, the only bench boss the franchise had known since its inception, Laviolette was brought on board and his influence is already obvious. The Predators were expected to get a boost offensively with Laviolette’s direction, but this year they are trending the same as in the 2013-14 season. The difference has been defensively, with their current +23 goal differential a complete turnaround from last year’s -26.
Another contributing factor to that defensive turnaround could certainly be goaltender Pekka Rinne’s return to prominence. A regular in the Vezina Trophy conversation for years, Rinne struggled last season after a hip injury limited him to only 24 starts, in which he went 10-10-3 with a goals-against average of 2.77 and a save percentage of .902, all career lows. Compare that to this season, where he's 21-6-1 with a .933 save percentage and goals-against average of 1.87, and Rinne could very well be on his way to his best season ever and another crack at the Vezina.
The Predators sit two points behind the Blues and three behind the Blackhawks in the Central Division, but have two games in hand on both of them. The Blue Jackets have already beaten three division leaders (Blackhawks, Lightning, Penguins) during their points streak.
As mentioned, the Blue Jackets' last regulation loss was in Nashville on Nov. 29. The 2-1 Predators win capped a six-game losing streak for the Blue Jackets, who turned the page on November and got out to a terrific start in December.
The Predators launched 42 shots at Curtis McElhinney in that game with McElhinney standing tall and giving the Blue Jackets a chance. The Jackets were also opportunistic, taking advantage of a third period power play when Ryan Johansen tied the score. The Jackets couldn’t quite hold on long enough, with Colin Wilson burying a loose puck at 17:48 of the third to put the Predators ahead for good.
The Barry Trotz Predators were always viewed as a defensive team, in part because of Rinne and in part because of one of the great defense pairings in the game with Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. Suter has moved on, but Weber remains as the rock on the blue line, one of the best offensive defenseman in the game. Weber has six goals and 20 points this season, and he’s topped the 20-goal mark twice in his career. He has terrific skating ability, he’s a physical force, and has one of the hardest shots in hockey. Weber is supported on the blue line with promising young defenseman, as Seth Jones and Ryan Ellis continue to mature and develop in the Nashville system.
If the Predators have candidates for the Vezina and the Norris, what other awards are they up for? Well they seem to have a lock for the Calder Trophy in Filip Forsberg, who has emerged with Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad in what is seemingly a two-man race for the league's top rookie honor. Forsberg has been oddly undervalued in his early career, mysteriously dropping to 11th overall in his draft year (2012) after many viewed him as a top-five pick, and then being traded away by the Capitals to Nashville for Martin Erat. The Predators won that trade, and now are seeing Forsberg flourish in his first full-time NHL action.
Who manages the puck better?
The Predators don’t knock you over offensively, but they have players with explosive ability when given the chance. The Blue Jackets struggled with turnovers in their own end throughout the contest with the Blackhawks, surviving because of the stellar play of Sergei Bobrovsky. The Predators will bring their share of pressure in the offensive zone as well, with Laviolette’s system, effective pressure players like Mike Fisher, and the neutral zone contested by the up-ice game of Weber. Turnovers in the high slot to Weber, Neal, and Forsberg are bad news for any team, and the Blue Jackets need to be better in that aspect than they were Saturday night.