Tonight is literally the most important hockey game of the season to this point league wide, with the last two teams without a regulation loss squaring off in Music City. The somewhat surprising Predators holding a slight advantage in the standings in the early going, with a shootout loss in the one more game they have played than the Hawks, and Conference III bragging rights are on the line.
Following Barry Trotz’s (likely overdue) ouster in Nash Vegas, Peter Laviolette was brought in to inject more pace to the Preds’ attack, and for the most part has done so in the early going, with the Predators visibly more aggressive in neutral and attacking ice, forcing opposing teams into mistakes rather than simply waiting for them. But the more things change, the more they stay the same, and it cannot be argued that the primary cause of the Preds’ solid start has been the resurgence of Pekka Rinne, currently boasting a .940 save percentage in the five non-Hawks games he’s appeared in this season. As a former Vezina finalist, if Rinne’s hip doesn’t once again liquify into Orc blood, he’s certainly shown an ability to maintain a high level throughout the course of a season, but it’s not a controversial statement to say that a .940 clip probably won’t be sustainable even in perfect health. Not to mention he’s never had to do it behind a team that has the potential to yield more attempts against due to more offensive risks being taken under Laviolette.
For right now, the Preds are in the middle of the pack in both shots yielded (28.3, 10th) and Corsi share (51.44%, 14th), which suggests that this isn’t a Colorado-esque mirage built entirely on goaltending. Adding to that is that the normally potent Preds power play under Trotz with Shea Weber’s world-ender coming from the point has dried up a bit in the early going, with just 2 power play goals in 21 tries so far (one being against the Hawks last week), so they’re doing most of their damage at even strength.
And while the vast majority of the Preds’ skaters are hovering right around the 50/50 split on their individual shares of possession, the unit doing the most damage is the third paring of Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, who are carrying around 63% of the play and have been entrusted with 15-20 minutes nightly. Granted, they’ve had the benefit of favorable zone starts and weaker competition, but they are slaying the hell out of the bums they are facing. And with the advantage of last change at home tonight, look for this pairing to get a good look at Antti Raanta at any possible opportunity.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, life without Corey Crawford continues tonight, with him not making the trip due to an upper body injury that had previously been reported as an illness. Putting two and two together in this case likely means a case of the dizzies for Crawford, and hopefully they subside soon. That means another outing for the Finnish Floodgates with Antti Raanta going tonight, fresh off a shutout of the Flyers, something Marc-Andre Fleury made look even more impressive last night. Raanta was less spastic Tuesday than he had shown all of last year, even if he did need to be bailed out a couple of times to earn the bagel. Perhaps Jimmy Waite is getting through to him a bit better than Steve Weeks did last year, or it could have just been a fluke. Either way he’ll face a sterner test on the road tonight in a building that has often given the Hawks fits.
While there’s been no official word disseminated after the morning skate, it’s common knowledge that Joel Quenneville is loath to change his lineups after a win, so expect future Panther Jeremy Morin and David “Ken Doll” Rundblad each to be enjoying the finest hot dogs Bridgestone Arena has to offer.
The Hawks controlled most of the play through the first forty minutes of Saturday’s game before getting a little sloppy in the face of a more aggressive Preds attack in the final frame where Crawford had to make some excellent saves to get the game to overtime. With last change at home, there figures to be no such feeling out period tonight, and the Preds ought to come out flying, this being the STATEMENT GAME that it is after all. Toews, Sharp, and Hossa figure to see the Weber and Josi pairing shift after shift, and the Hawks getting the better of that matchup will go a long way in lightening Raanta’s workload along with staying out of the box. Just because the Preds’ power play hasn’t come alive yet is no reason to coax it into doing so. Other usual staples apply as well, such as net traffic at the very tall and rangey Rinne and forwards minding their gaps on breakouts.
It sounds odd to even say it for a game in Nashville in October, but tonight should be a fun uptempo game between two of the league’s better teams in the early going of the season, provided Raanta doesn’t go for a swim early and often. Let’s go Hawks.