Due to a quirk in the schedule, the Nashville Predators went through the first month of the season without playing a single game within their division. That division is of course the Central, which is hands down the deepest group in the NHL; I'm sure you know this by now, so it's just a matter of how you choose to illustrate it. Let's try it this way: "You know you're in a tough division when…"
- Four of the Top 8 teams in the entire League (not just from the Western Conference) hail from the Central (going into Wednesday's play).
- One of those quartet of teams is not the Chicago Blackhawks (you might recall, they kind of won the whole thing last year).
- The fifth and sixth place teams in the Central (Winnipeg Jets and Chicago) are a combined 14-9-1.
- The seventh-place team (Colorado Avalanche) won the division two years ago with essentially the same core of players.
So get ready for some serious dog fights. It begins this week for the Preds at Minnesota (5-0-0 at home) Thursday and versus the defending-division-champion St. Louis Blues in Nashville on Saturday.
2. The Toughest Minutes
There are tough minutes, and then there are Paul Gaustad-tough minutes. Goose and his linemates (usually Eric Nystrom and Austin Watson) are given extremely difficult assignments every night. First, they are tasked to control top scoring lines on the opposition (Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin's lines for Pittsburgh, Ryan Kesler's line for Anaheim, Anze Kopitar or Jeff Carter's line for L.A., to name a few).
That is difficult enough, but then add to it the fact they almost always start in the defensive zone (right in front of Pekka Rinne). So far this season, Gaustad has made 81 such "D-Zone starts" and only six in the offensive zone. Nystrom (who missed Sunday's game with an upper-body injury) has made 70 D-Zone starts and six offensive. They rank first and second in the NHL in highest percentage D-Zone starts, and did last year as well.
Despite this disadvantage, Gaustad's unit has held their own. Sure, their "Corsi" is never going to be pretty as a result, but in the context of the situations they are put in, they are effective. Check out this article on some of the tactics they use to get the puck out of danger and down ice.
The net result is that this creates more favorable matchups for the rest of the team. While Gaustad's line is not necessarily "driving possession" in terms of Corsi, the job they do clears the way for the Predators to overall have the possession advantage most nights (Currently at 53 percent according to NHL.com).
3. Phil Housley Deserves Props
The Predators quiet, classy assistant coach has gotten some well-deserved credit for all he has done with Nashville's deep and young defense corps. However, I find that many casual Predators fans are unaware of just how great he was as a player. That will certainly change next week when he is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (which many experts feel is long overdue). I really enjoyed this backstory on his career by Scott Burnside from ESPN.com. Check out the pictures on how young he looked when he first came into the league back in 1982 right out of high school. Preds Radio Analyst Brent Peterson (who was on that first Buffalo Sabres team) thought Housley looked like he was 14. Lindy Ruff in the article actually says he looked 13! But boy, could he play. Check it out here.