While the tradition of the Boxing Day game at the UC has now been lost to the new collective bargaining agreement, and the Hawks have already played once since the Christmas holiday, tonight’s game still has the the look and feel of a game on the 26th despite being on the 29th. It remains to be seen if the crowd will be as raucous, but with two of the top teams in the league going at it for Conference III supremacy nearing the halfway point of the season, there should be plenty to get fired up for anyway.
Peter Laviolette tends to have a short shelf life as a coach given his abrasive personality, but in the early goings of things, he most certainly gets his teams to perform at a fantastic pace of hockey, and the Preds and their fans are certainly enjoying it so far. And he’s got them doing things the right way as well, with a 53.0% share of all even strength shot attempts, good for sixth in the league. That along with their several new additions in the off season in hopes to have scoring by committee at forward have paid dividends. Most notably among them is breakout Calder shoo-in Filip Forsberg, who George McPhee traded for Martin Erat. George McPhee is now predictably fired, and Forsberg is putting up a point per game as a rookie in his first full season. While listed as a center, Forsberg has found his game as a power forward on the wing opposite the redassed but talented James Neal, and absolute fucking scumbag Mike Ribeiro, whose career is being saved by centering these two. However as a result, the Preds scoring has become a bit top heavy as a result and they haven’t gotten much out of vets Derek Roy, Olli Jokinen, awful person Mike Fisher, and Matt Cullen, all of whom have been in and out of the lineup with injuries.
Obviously any defensive corps with Shea Weber as its #1 is going to be solid, but the Predators’ blue line was always its hidden strength. Roman Josi has developed into a puck moving partner for Weber that can skate out of trouble, and Seth Jones is becoming the monster everyone except Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic thought he would be. But the Preds get a comical amount of drive from their third pair in Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, who have slayed countless bums this year with a 56+% share for each of them. Weber and Josi take the toughest assignments and zone starts, and as a result both are under 49% in their share of possession, but are getting an absolutely impossible 96% save percentage behind them at evens, particularly given the amount of water they take on.
That save percentage is of course coming from Pekka Rinne, who has finally gotten healthy after vertigo and a case of shit-hip over the last two years, and has re-established himself in the upper echelon of goaltenders in the league. Rinne saves .946 of shots he faces at evens and .935 overall, both of which are top-five league wide. Rinne is huge and agile, and will save anything he sees. Traffic tonight in front of him will be a must.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, Brad Richards returns to the lineup tonight to his usual spot between Patrick Kane and Kris Versteeg, which as a result has pushed Patrick Sharp to the fourth/checking line with Kruger and Smith. At least in that slot Sharp gets to play on his off-side being able to shoot easier, but the dungeon esque zone starts are not something he has been accustomed to since the Bush administration. Something that bears watching.
On the blueline, because it’s the Christmas season and Santa is hanging around for a few extra days apparently and giving everyone the gift they really wanted, which is Michal Rozsival not playing once again. Rozy is scheduled to come back outside against the Caps on Thursday afternoon, so enjoy as much of Rundblad-Erixon as the third pairing as Quenneville deigns everyone worthy of tonight, which will probably be about 10 minutes worth. Corey Crawford gets the crease again tonight after registering his first win in nearly a month in Colorado.
Joel Quenneville figures to get very matchy-uppy tonight, looking to keep some distance between the Hawks and the Preds, and if the game is tight, his bench will become short in a hurry. Hjalmarsson and Oduya will get a full helping of Forsberg, Ribeiro, and Neal, the results of which have been mixed so far this season, while Weber and Josi will get quite a bit of the Toews line. The problems start to arise with the matchup of Ekholm and Ellis behind Craig Smith and Colin Wilson against Shaw and Carcillo, which could get ugly basically immediately. And even then behind all that is the stingy Rinne. But it’s still two of the league’s top teams going at it during the most wonderful time of the year, and that should result in a spirited affair. Let’s go Hawks.