While the losing streak was certainly discouraging, playing the Blue Jackets could be just what Nashville needs. If any team can't solve the Predators, its Columbus. Nationwide Arena has been a home away from home of sorts for the Preds, and with Coach Trotz not happy about the recent slide I look for the Predators to end the losing streak tonight. I've got Darth Vader* down for 4 markers, and the opposition 1 as Pekka Rinne begins to cement a hold on the number one job.
Nice to see that the Preds fans now refer to themselves as Darth Vader. So, unless Hitchcock learns how to use a light saber or "Force lightning," before this evening, the finish seems fairly predictable. This will certainly be a challenging game in Nationwide -- the Predators have gone 22-2-2 since 2006 and won the previous four games this season. The Jackets have competed and played hard in the series this year -- but can no longer settle for just one point. Nashville sits in seventh place in the Western Conference with 61 points. Lately, they have cooled though, and gone 5-5 in their last 10 - recent losses from blown leads late in the game exacerbated some of the pain and has Barry Trotz more surly than usual. A loss in Nationwide would be their first four-game losing streak since October.
First Line: Come out ready to play. Seriously. While it feels ridiculous to need to write this down for an NHL team, the Jackets have to be better in the first five minutes of the game. The CBJ have given up the first goal within the first four minutes of the previous seven games. It's no way to start and certainly does little to set the tone for a team heavy on young players looking for confidence. The fans of Nationwide will do their part to lend some energy to the team, but they simply have to be given a reason -- with a struggling Mason in net, this is absolutely crucial.
Second Line: The first line has to play like the first line. Somehow, Juice has squeezed his way back onto the first line. I do not agree with this in the slightest regard. Speaking of slight - Juice really struggles against teams like Nashville. Nashville's blueliners are big and physical and don't give him much room to operate. As it has all season, I think his inability to create space against physical defensemen increases his neutral zone turnovers, and ultimately nullifies the potential of the whole line. I thought he was much more effective on the third line, as he is much less likely to be facing a top pairing. Hopefully, I will be proven wrong this evening. The first line has to get more productive at even strength and set the tone for the balance of the team. It's equally important that they play better defensively -- often, they've been on the ice for the "first goal" to start the game. They have to mind the points more effectively and be smart with the transition passing. Nash has been playing pretty well lin the last seven games (5 g/ 3 a) and was given a clear sign from the hockey gods at the end of the Minnesota game with that carnival ricochet goal-- shoot and thou shalt be rewarded. Vermette has been playing very well and just needs to keep shooting the puck as opposed to looking for the extra pass.
Third Line: Take advantage of the breaks. The Minnesota game was painful to watch for a variety of reasons, but it did bring a systemic problem to light -- the insistence of making the "extra pass" on the break-out and odd-man rushes. Perhaps this is indicative of the youth on the team, but the Jackets seem to insist on making the highlight goal instead of throwing a good shot on net. How many odd-man advantages did they screw up with an extra pass on Saturday night? If you have a 4-on-1 in the NHL it should be a goal -- and absolutely should be a solid shot on net. The Jackets have great speed up front and need to focus on not neutralizing that with extra passing. Rinne - who gets the start tonight - hasn't been as solid last year and is fighting for the starting job. However, he is very sound positionally -- you need to get a goalie like that moving before he's set, and a quick transition and wrist shot is a great way to get him uncomfortable.
Fourth Line: Defense first. Admittedly, I didn't get to see much of the previous games in Philly and Boston - but the CBJ have continued to give up the first goal early, and surrendered 11 goals in the last three games. The Jackets had really started to play solid defense, and I hope they can get back to that trend. I still have a lot of issues with the rationale on some of the pairings -- Tyutin and Stralman are at the top of that list - but that's for another post. Death and Taxes are reunited, and I think Russell and Jurcina have continued to play well. I would really like to see Roy in the lineup for Nashville, as I think his style really matches up well with their forwards, but Jurcina does a good job of keeping the big boys on the outside and clearing the crease. The Jackets' blueliners will be helped, as Nashville is missing a few key forwards -- center Goc is one of their top faceoff winners -- and Joel Ward is a solid winger who averages more than 18 minutes/game. Steve Sullivan always finds ways to score against the Jackets, and has continued to do so this year (averaging point/game) -- he really brings to light one of the biggest defensive shortcomings of the Jackets, and that is losing a man assignment when the puck goes deep in the zone. The Jackets have to keep somebody in his pocket or he will likely tally again. The other challenge - which is ongoing - is being smart with clearing passes. To the points made above, the sloppy clearing passes really slow down the transition game and neutralize the Jackets team speed. I look for Kris Russell to continue leading by example for this key asset on the blueline.