PREDATORS (20-8-2) at WILD (16-12-2)
TV: FS-TN, FS-N
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Nashville Predators will be without forward James Neal on Saturday when they play the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center.
Neal remained in Nashville because of an illness. Predators coach Peter Laviolette said it is not believed to be the mumps and Neal could join the team later on their three-game road trip, which starts against the Wild. The Predators play at the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday and Tuesday at the Boston Bruins Tuesday before heading home ahead of Christmas.
Laviolette moved Craig Smith into Neal's spot on the right side of Mike Ribeiro and Filip Forsberg on the Predators' top line.
"I think anytime you have a piece of your lineup that plays 17 or 18 minutes a night, there's going to be adjustments you have to make," Laviolette said. "Not only is it [Smith] who changes, other guys will have to change as well, are going to find themselves moving around. It's a good challenge for him, I think a good opportunity for him to be in a situation like this tonight."
Smith had two two-goal games against the Wild last season, including a two-goal, two-assist night in a 7-3 win at Xcel Energy Center in the regular season finale for each club.
"He is a guy, who has proven in the past, that he's capable of scoring goals," Laviolette said. "I think it's a natural fit for him to play with a guy like Mike and even Filip, to see how this line can respond and how this opportunity will work for him."
The Wild will welcome Matt Cooke back to the lineup after he missed 22 games with a hip flexor. Cooke got off to a fantastic start, scoring two goals and adding four assists in eight games before being knocked out of the lineup following Minnesota's game Oct. 28 at Boston.
Cooke said he originally sustained the injury in the second game of the season and played through it for a couple of weeks before finally relenting just before Halloween.
"It'll be nice to enjoy the things you haven't been able to do in six weeks," Cooke said. "The pre-game meal, the pre-game nap, those things will be fun. Just anxious to get back in and help this team."
Ryan Carter is also back after missing the past three games with an upper-body injury. With Cooke and Carter back in the lineup, Minnesota will have the closest thing to its opening-night lineup since mid-October.
"It's been tough going early with the mumps and injuries and guys missing [time]," Carter said. "Hopefully getting healthy is a good thing for us and we can keep our game going in the right direction."
Neither Cooke or Carter play a top-six role for Minnesota, but Wild coach Mike Yeo said having each back will make a significant impact on his forward group.
"They bring something different to the table and something that I think we've been missing a little bit," Yeo said. "Just the board work, the presence on the forecheck, finishing checks and making us a team that's not fun to play against."
Pekka Rinne and Darcy Kuemper are the starting goaltenders for each team.
Here are the projected lineups:
Filip Forsberg - Mike Ribeiro - Craig Smith
Colin Wilson - Mike Fisher - Matt Cullen
Eric Nystrom - Olli Jokinen - Gabriel Bourque
Derek Roy - Calle Jarnkrok - Taylor Beck
Roman Josi - Shea Weber
Anton Volchenkov - Seth Jones
Mattias Ekholm - Ryan Ellis
SCRATCHES: Victor Bartley, Viktor Stalberg
INJURED: Paul Gaustad (lower body), James Neal (illness)
Zach Parise - Mikael Granlund - Thomas Vanek
Jason Zucker - Mikko Koivu - Jason Pominville
Matt Cooke - Charlie Coyle - Nino Niederreiter
Ryan Carter - Kyle Brodziak - Erik Haula
Ryan Suter - Jonas Brodin
Marco Scandella - Jared Spurgeon
Christian Folin - Nate Prosser
SCRATCHED: Justin Fontaine, Stu Bickel, Justin Falk
INJURED: Keith Ballard (head/face)
Status report: With Neal out and Stalberg not ready to join the lineup, Beck will play in his first game since Dec. 6. ... Yeo said Kuemper and Backstrom are feeling better after they were each sick earlier in the week. Kuemper missed two games and Backstrom played back-to-back games despite the illness.
Who's hot: Rinne has allowed two goals or fewer in five straight starts and hasn't allowed more than three goals in a game since Nov. 13. ... Suter has six assists over his past five games since returning from illness Dec. 9.