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Top Nine Scoring; Dress Rehearsal in Columbus

by Thomas Willis & Brooks Bratten / Nashville Predators

After 16 days, five games, practices, photo shoots and media sessions, the real thing is almost here.

Saturday night’s final preseason contest comes as a sort of dress rehearsal for the Nashville Predators, one last opportunity to fine-tune systematic structures, test out line combinations and put everything into play before two points are on the line every night.

The Preds will face the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena in the exhibition finale (6:00 p.m. CT), and while the nuances and details of the game are important to get right, a victory to finish off the preseason wouldn’t hurt.

“Everybody’s putting in the effort and this is the last chance to just kind of nail the systems down before the games really count, but to us, it doesn’t matter if its preseason, postseason, we just want to win all the time,” forward Eric Nystrom said. “We’re going to make sure we’re bringing our best effort and make a good impression.”

It’s a repeat of last year, as the Preds faced the Jackets in Columbus to close out the preseason. With this being the final outing before the regular season commences, exiting the Buckeye State on a high note is paramount.

“At the end of training camp, you want to feel good about your last game,” Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. “We lost the [preseason] game in Columbus last year, but we really liked the way we played. We thought we did a lot of good things and controlled the game, but to me, that was probably the most important thing, leaving there with a good feeling about how we played the game.”

When the 2015-16 campaign does get underway, the Predators know they won’t be sneaking up on anybody after the success of last season. After falling on Tuesday to this same Columbus team, Nashville would prefer to not only finish the preseason with a win, but also continue to build a mindset to carry them for 82 games and then some.

“I don’t think we’re going to surprise as many teams as we did last year when we were coming at them with our systems and our work ethic,” defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “This year, we’re going to have to be at the top of our game every night. The West is the top conference, so we’re going to have to be physically sound and tremendously sharp every game.”

Top-nine Forward Group:

Slotting Cody Hodgson into the Predators third line center role and moving Calle Jarnkrok to the wing has been a topic of conversation since Nashville General Manager David Poile first outlined it on July 1. That plan has come to fruition on the ice during the preseason and training camp as well, with Laviolette also using either Craig Smith or Colin Wilson, the team's third and fourth highest-scoring forwards in 2014-15, to round out the trio of forwards.

After Friday's practice at training camp, the Preds coach explained that moving another scoring forward to the line is a way of casting out the traditional defensive role given to third lines and giving the responsibility of scoring to a top-nine forward group rather than a top six.

“It’s more about looking to just have a group of nine forwards,” Laviolette said. “[Paul Gaustad’s] line has a certain role that we utilize them for, and their expectations, I think, are a little bit different on a nightly basis.

“We’re looking more at a top nine that everybody can help contribute to the offense; not that the fourth line can't, they’re more than welcome to, but I think the top nine guys, we’re trying to find the right fit and see if we can get production from everyone.”

Here’s a look at the Predators lines and pairings from Friday’s camp session:

Forwards
Filip Forsberg Mike Ribeiro James Neal
Viktor Arvidsson Mike Fisher Craig Smith
Colin Wilson Cody Hodgson Calle Jarnkrok
Eric Nystrom Paul Gaustad G. Bourque/A. Watson
Defense
Roman Josi Shea Weber
Mattias Ekholm Ryan Ellis
Barret Jackman Seth Jones
Anthony Bitetto Victor Bartley

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