Here are the five things to watch for during the Nashville Predators longest road trip of the season:
1. Cullen's Impact: Preds forward Matt Cullen played in his first game in more than a month on Wednesday and didn’t appear to skip a beat. Logging over 15 minutes of ice time, notching an assist and skating with Craig Smith who scored twice, the 37-year-old center made an immediate impact on the Preds in their contest against the Edmonton Oilers. Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette commented earlier in the week that he thought Cullen had been one of the team’s best forwards prior to suffering an injury in the preseason and the veteran was back to that level quickly against the Oilers. Cullen’s excellent passing should help to give the Preds second and third lines an added element that may lead to more production from a group that has been relatively quiet so far this campaign. Smith connected for his second and third goals of the season against Edmonton yesterday, marking his first score since Opening Night (20 days without a goal). Watch for players like Colin Wilson, Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy and Smith to produce more offensive chances now that Cullen has returned.
2. Strong First 40 Minutes: It’s too early to call them the “Comeback Kids” but the Preds have earned a majority of their wins by execution in the final moments of contests. Last week, Nashville forward Eric Nystrom said the victories earned by overcoming late deficits have temporarily boosted the team’s confidence, but the winger admits it’s unwise to think it’s a permanent recipe for success.
“We haven’t been as good as we need to be in the first couple periods, and we know that,” Nystrom said. “Sure, it’s been great to have those rousing third periods, but we need to learn how to come out stronger out of the gate to start [games].”
Especially important in road games, Nashville will be looking even more to score the initial goal in their set of upcoming games away from Bridgestone Arena. The Preds were able to score the first goal in their contest against the Oilers and establishing that early lead helped the team control the pace of play and jump out to a three-goal advantage. Smith’s rebound goal in the second period was just the third time the club has scored first in nine games played so far this season. Adding to that tally will go a long way in determining their overall success on the Country Music Association Awards road trip.
3. Rest for Rinne: Goaltender Pekka Rinne has raced off to a 6-1-1 record to begin the season to go along with a .936 save percentage and a 1.71 goals against average (GAA). The successful beginning to the campaign has been particularly meaningful for the Finnish netminder in light of the injury issues that forced him to miss 51 games last season. Rinne claims he feels the best he’s felt in several years, and so far, he certainly looks like it too. The main question surrounding the Finnish netminder will be how much time he sees in the crease during the road trip. With no back-to-back games on the excursion, it’s possible that Laviolette could call Rinne’s number in all six of the contests. With an excellent back up in Carter Hutton waiting in the wings, however, it probably makes sense for Rinne to take at least one night off during the stretch of contests. Watch for how Laviolette uses his netminders on this trip as an indication of how the games will be split between the goalies for the remainder of the season.
4. Power Play: Despite the Preds strong start to the season, the club has received little help from either of its power play units. Converting at a pedestrian 7.4 percent (2-for-27) the team’s time with the man advantage has produced chances but lacked finish. Laviolette has continued to increase the time spent working on the power play in practice, all while the questions about it’s ineffectiveness have only gone up in number.
Chemistry between players on both units appears to be one of the top issues the club is working through across the first nine games. Considering that Mike Ribeiro, James Neal, Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy and even Filip Forsberg are all working together for the first time as members of the Preds power play group, the feeling out process that’s occurred feels reasonable. Going into six different hostile environments over the next couple weeks, however, Nashville will have little time to keeping waiting on results on the man advantage. Several Preds players have commented that once a power-play goal comes they think the floodgates will open - we’ll find out if they’re right soon enough.
5. Freshness and Rest: The 2013-14 version of the Predators CMA Awards road trip was not as consistent or predictable in its scheduling as this season’s excursion. A seven-game, 16-day hiatus from Music City, last year’s campaign featured several multiple-day breaks between games. The disjointed scheduling pattern led to an odd feel during practices and on off days according to long-time Preds TV Play-by-Play man Pete Weber.
This year, the long stretches between games and odd traveling schedule won’t impact the club. The Preds play six games during the trip, with one taking place every other day. They’ll also have the benefit of staying in the Western Conference this time, instead of going from coast to coast (and conference to conference). The consistent playing and travel schedule should help with the freshness level of the Preds this time around. Finally, no games on consecutive nights allows for the option of practice between contests and should help prevent tired legs in the third period for Nashville.