Coming off a five-game home stand that saw the Nashville Predators earn a 3-1-1 record, the team now departs for a five-game road swing that will take them to Columbus (tonight), Minnesota (Saturday), New York Rangers (Monday), Buffalo (Wednesday) and Philadelphia (Friday). The club enters an important juncture of the NHL season as they approach the season’s quarter mark.
Here are five things to look for on this upcoming road trip:
Juggling with Fire:
The NHL schedule has been forgiving to the Nashville Predators, as the team’s 17 games are the fewest of any Western Conference club. The team will make up for it on this trip, playing six games in their next nine days, including back-to-back sets over each of the next Friday and Saturdays. Head Coach Peter Laviolette will have some intriguing decisions to make regarding how to best handle goaltending. For example, will he start Pekka Rinne on Friday against Columbus and Carter Hutton on Saturday against Minnesota? Or does Laviolette place more emphasis on strength of schedule and divisional matchups and do the inverse? How does next weekend’s back-to-back factor into his decision making? Could Rinne play all six games? This could be an important trip to set the standard for similar stretches throughout the season.
During preseason predictions, USA Today proclaimed Nashville’s defense had the best combination of "skill, grit, depth and potential" in the League. Led by Captain Shea Weber, the defense is certainly living up to the billing. It’s probably not a shock to anyone that the team ranks near the top of the League in goals-against per game. Less publicized however, is Nashville’s torrential offensive output by defensemen. In fact, the Nashville defense corps has more points per game than any other in the NHL with 17 goals and 35 assists, totaling 51 points. As a team, Nashville has 53 goals, meaning that one-third, or 32.1 percent-of their offense comes from the backend. That’s a staggering number. Nashville’s success on the trip will depend on their ability to continue that kind of output.
New York State of Mind:
Nearly a quarter into the season, the New York Rangers have proven to be amongst the NHL’s cream-of-the-crop, and are locked in a dogfight with the Montreal Canadiens for the Eastern Conference’s top spot. Blessed with the rare combination of a lethal offense and stingy defense, the Rangers can beat teams in a number of ways: They can (and do) outscore the opposition, boasting a League-leading plus-25 goal differential heading into Thursday’s games. Tight checking, one-goal game? No problem. New York has played six, one-goal games and holds a 4-0-2 record in those contests. Luckily for the Predators, they can also beat teams in a number of ways. This game against the Rangers has the potential to be Nashville’s greatest challenge during the trip, as well as the greatest opportunity to use the game as a measuring stick.
You Don't Know Jack:
On Wednesday night in Buffalo, the Preds will get their first look at phenom-wunderkind, Jack Eichel. Eichel was the second-overall pick in this year’s draft behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. The 2015 Hobey Baker-winner as college hockey’s most outstanding player possesses a bounty of talent, but has lagged behind the rookie scoring race, posting six goals and three assists in 18 games. Regardless, Nashville will get a good look at a re-tooling Buffalo Sabres squad that has former Pittsburgh Penguins bench boss, Dan Bylsma, leading their club. At 18 games into the season, the team is hovering near .500 and close to the Eastern Conference cellar, making this game a manageable, but potentially difficult contest for the Predators.
The Turkey Trot:
Teams that find a way to put themselves in a playoff spot by Thanksgiving significantly increase their odds of making it into the final eight once the regular season ends. How much do those odds increase? Figures vary, but different sources place the number somewhere between 75-90 percent. Despite the immense parity in the NHL, teams don’t shift around much from December on, making the Thanksgiving Day record a critical juncture of the season.