After a quick stop at home to start the New Year, the Nashville Predators are back on the road for a three-game set, beginning tonight in Tampa Bay. The Preds and Lightning will get together at Amalie Arena for the second and final time this season; Nov. 21 brought a 3-1 victory for Nashville.
The Predators started off 2017 with a 2-1 overtime defeat at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena. Goaltender Pekka Rinne stopped 41 shots in the loss and Kevin Fiala scored the lone goal for the home team.
Ryan Johansen leads Nashville with 27 points on the season, including 20 assists. Viktor Arvidsson is second on the club with 24 points, followed by Filip Forsberg with 23 and Mike Ribeiro with 21. James Neal leads the Preds with 14 goals, while Arvidsson and Captain Mike Fisher have potted 10 apiece. Rinne is 13-10-6 for Nashville; fellow netminder Juuse Saros is 3-2-1 with a .957 save percentage.
Video: Thomas Willis previews NSH vs. TBL from Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay (19-16-4) lost 6-4 to Winnipeg on Tuesday night but had points in three straight before that. Nikita Kucherov leads the team in goals and points with 15 and 38, respectively. Defenseman Victor Hedman has 35 points on the season, including six points in his last four games. Alex Killorn has scored on 12 occasions for the Lightning; Tyler Johnson and Jonathan Drouin have 11 goals each. Lightning Captain Steven Stamkos remains out with an injury and goaltender Ben Bishop is also on the injured list, with Andrei Vasilevskiy owns a 10-6-2 record this season.
Bitetto and a Moving Train:
It's been said that trying to re-enter an NHL lineup after missing time - especially due to injury - can be like trying to jump onto a moving train.
If defenseman Anthony Bitetto, who's missed the Preds' previous 15 games with an upper-body injury, plays against the Lightning tonight, he'll be tasked with chasing down the proverbial locomotive after an extended time away. Particularly challenging for Bitetto is regaining the brilliant play he exhibited during September's training camp - the last true time he was able to play consistently.
All told, two major injuries have kept the 26-year-old d-man out of the lineup for a combined 33 games. If you're quick at math, that means he's played in only four contests this season.
"The best four games I've ever seen," Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette joked this morning.
"He had an excellent camp, he came in and really established himself. He really looked like someone who was really going to take the next step, as far as this year goes. The reports are good coming out of Milwaukee with regard to his health and him coming back. But to continue that from training camp, it's tough. You have an injury, you get over it, you have another one right away. It just makes it difficult."
Bitetto spent some time alongside Yannick Weber during Thursday's morning skate, a defensive partner he's at least somewhat familiar with. Still, the time out of the lineup has been difficult.
"It's been really frustrating, but sometimes you have to deal with things like this," Bitetto said. "I've dealt with it the best I could. Coming back after the first one, I thought, 'OK now's the time.' And I get hurt three games into it. I'm going to say it again, 'now is the time.' So I went down [to Milwaukee] and I felt better than I did the first time. I felt like my legs were there. The game is obviously quicker up here, so I have to simplify my game as best I can, but I'm excited. I want to be a part of this team and I think we can get things going the right way."
Additional Morning Update: See the Preds projected lineup by clicking here.
As the Preds begin a back-to-back set in the Sunshine State, here are three things to watch for:
After beginning the season with a rough record away from home, the Predators have now won three straight on the road, including a 4-0 victory in St. Louis on Dec. 30. The other two wins include back-to-back triumphs in Philadelphia and New Jersey in December, the same situation currently presented with games in Tampa Bay and Florida on consecutive nights.
It's unlikely the string of home losses the Predators have recently endured will last long, and a growing confidence on the road could pay dividends for Nashville soon enough.
Need for Speed:
Kevin Fiala scored his sixth goal of the season on Tuesday night versus the Canadiens and was noticeable almost every time he stepped on the ice once more. Head Coach Peter Laviolette, who has recently mentioned Fiala's improved play since going back and forth from the AHL this season, once again praised the young forward on Tuesday night.
"Just the speed [in his game]," Laviolette said of Fiala. "The speed and the work ethic, the work on the puck - I thought he was good tonight, just moving his feet and competing on the puck."
If Fiala's strong play continues, look to see if he's rewarded with more ice time, which could ultimately lead to more scoring opportunities.
One, Two Punch:
With a back-to-back situation, it's likely that both Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros will see time in the Predators net over the next 48 hours. That could give Nashville an advantage in the goaltending department on both occasions, with Rinne and Saros turning in stellar performances as of late. Rinne stopped 41 pucks on Tuesday night against Montreal and Saros notched his first career shutout on Dec. 30 at St. Louis.
Take It In:
Tonight's game begins at 6:30 p.m. CT and can be seen on Fox Sports Tennessee with the Predators Live! pregame show starting at 6 p.m. Willy Daunic, Stu Grimson and Lyndsay Rowley work the TV side while Pete Weber and Brent Peterson call the action on 102.5 The Game and the Predators Radio Network.