It's time. - Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
I don't think I even need to come up with something witty here. You all know what tonight is. I don't need to sell you on it. According to the talented Mr. Matt Wagner who attended morning skate, 75% of the active roster was on the ice 20 minutes before the scheduled start of the skate. Yep, the boys are ready to go.
"I think everybody's jacked about tonight," coach Scott Arniel said this morning. "It was such a busy summer for our organization, for the fans, for the team. The players are certainly excited, with our arena situation getting settled, the big trade for [Jeff] Carter, all the free agent signings, the resigning of some of our players that were here previously. It's got everybody pumped up. Hopefully I just have to open the doors and let the dogs run tonight."
Columbus has been gearing up all summer for this game: they've added Jeff Carter, James Wisniewski (who will not play tonight due to suspension), Vinny Prospal, and Radek Martinek, to go with four rookies, three of whom will be making their NHL debuts tonight in Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson, and David Savard. They also inked two of their players heading into contract years in R.J. Umberger and Fedor Tyutin.
We'll take a look at expected rosters, some numbers from last season, and a few other notes after the jump. For the Jackets there are some question marks, to be sure, but this is by far the most talented roster the Jackets have ever sent out on opening night in this their 11th season. Home opener. Division rival. High expectations. DROP THE PUCK!
Columbus Blue Jackets ('10-'11: 34-35-13, 81 points; 5th division, 13th conference)
|Vinny Prospal||Jeff Carter||Rick Nash|
|R.J. Umberger||Antoine Vermette||Cam Atkinson|
|Matt Calvert||Samuel Pahlsson||Derek Dorsett|
|Derek MacKenzie||Ryan Johansen||Derick Brassard|
|Fedor Tyutin||Radek Martinek|
|Marc Methot||Grant Clitsome|
|Kris Russell||David Savard|
Nashville Predators ('10-'11: 44-27-11, 99 points; 2nd division, 5th conference)
|Colin Wilson||David Legwand||Craig Smith|
|Sergei Kostitsyn||Nick Spaling||Martin Erat|
|Jordin Tootoo||Cal O’Reilly||Matt Halischuk|
|Jerred Smithson||Blake Geoffrion||Patric Hornqvist|
|Ryan Suter||Shea Weber|
|Jonathon Blum||Kevin Klein|
|Jack Hillen||Teemu Laakso|
By The Numbers ('10-'11 Season)
NSH - 2.60 gpg (t21st)
CBJ - 2.56 gpg (24th)
NSH - 2.32 gapg (3rd)
CBJ - 3.05 gapg (26th)
NSH - 15.2% (26th)
CBJ - 14.0% (29th)
NSH - 85.0% (5th)
CBJ - 80.3% (22nd)
Those numbers aren't pretty, but neither of these teams is the same as it was last year. The Jackets have remade their offense, and brought in a few new blue-liners. The Predators lost some offensive punch when playoff hero Joel Ward moved on to Washington as a free agent, career Jackets-killer Steve Sullivan is now in Pittsburgh, and Mike Fisher is currently out with a bum shoulder. This weakens the Predators' offense. That said, coach Barry Trotz always wrings every last drop out of his roster. To wit, the Preds went 7-1-0 in their eight exhibition games; their only loss was in the road portion of a split-squad opener with Florida.
And the main cause of that was that defensively, the Predators are still stout, as always, allowing just 15 goals in eight pre-season games. All-World top pairing Ryan Suter and Shea Weber are back for one more year, and with contract issues this may be that pairings--and by extension, the Predators'--swan song. Goaltender Pekka Rinne is also in a contract year, and though he's been battling the flu it's expected he'll play tonight.
For the Jackets, it's all about getting settled into their system early and fighting the excitement of opening their season at home. "Hopefully [settling into the game] happens quickly," Arniel said. "You know Nashville will keep it very simple, especially in the first five minutes. We've got to be the same way. That means if we have to dump pucks and go get them, if it means we have to shoot pucks instead of trying to get fancy, that's where we've gotta be smart about it early on."
For the Jackets, this will be a solid test of their new-look offense. The top-line of Prospal, Carter, and Nash will need some time to gel, but is talented enough that if Scott Arniel can get them on the ice not against that top pair they should be able to do some damage. For Carter and Prospal, it's their first games in the Union Blue. "It's exciting," Carter said. "It's been a long summer thinking about it." Of Prospal's addition, Carter was also complementary. "Vinny's been great," he said. "Ii had a chance to play with him for half a year in Philadelphia. He's a veteran guy, he's been around a long time. When hegets the puck, he's going to make good plays with it."
"More than anything," Arniel said, "if it was just Nash out there, Suter and Weber, or Legwand and Weber, it was always a tag-team seeming to get close to Rick and not give him any space to work with. With Jeff and some of the other people out there, [Nashville's] gotta be more conscious of other people. If they don't, it allows a guy like Jeff to get free, and it doesn't take much for him to get that shot off."
On special teams, the Jackets PK should be able to get a nice test without being over-exposed, as the Predators' Power Play isn't traditionally great. They lost Ward and Sullivan, though you still always have to respect Weber and Suter on the points on their PP unit.
Conversely, the Jackets' new-look Power Play will have a tough test, as the Preds' PK was one of the best in the league a season ago. Even without Wisniewski, this should be the best Power Play unit we've seen in Columbus since, well, ever. David Savard hasn't looked out of his depth on the Power Play, and his shot is good enough to command some respect.
"If you're going to still evaluate guys, you've gotta put them in roles where they're going to show their best attributes and best skills," said Arniel of Savard. "He's got some of the best patience on our team back at the top there, especially on the Power Play. He's got great vision, and at times, for a young guy he's got ice in his veins. He'll hold on to pucks, and that's what you want to see with a quarterback. I'm sure he's going to be nervous, and he'll have some growing pains, but we'll start him there and see how it works."
On top of that, Fedor Tyutin has looked like a much better PP player with that right-handed shot on the other side. And, if nothing else, Radek Martinek can shoot it from the point as well. In short, the Jackets' Power Play is better; how much better, well, we may find out tonight.
In goal, there are some questions about Rinne, as he was battling a flu bug this week. I'm always of the mind that if a player is good enough to play, you expect his best. And, at his best, Rinne is a tough nut to crack. And, of course, speaking of questions, there's Steve Mason. He looked sharp in the pre-season, but as we know, it's just the pre-season. Either way, the addition of full-time goalie coach Ian Clark seems to be paying some early dividends, as Mason has looked much better so far under his tutelage.
"Goaltending is the big story in the NHL," Arniel said. "You have to have it to have success. We need Mase to step up and play the way we hope he can. He's had a good training camp, he's had a real good exhibition schedule. i think that we're really focused on the day-to-day with Mase. The big test starts tonight."
Finally, there's the physical aspect. These games are always slugfests. These teams do not like each other, and this may be one of the only games the Jackets truly, truly miss Jared Boll. Jordin Tootoo has never been shy about stirring the pot, and the Jackets are decidedly less physical without Boll and Wisniewski in their lineup.
With the Jackets moving toward three scoring lines, it will be interesting to see if Columbus can match the physical edge that the Predators always bring. "You know the way Nashville plays," Derek Dorsett said. "They're big, they're strong, and whenever you go up against them you know it's a battle. We've just gotta make sure we're ready for the puck drop, and the crowd's going to get us into it. I hear they've got a pretty good opening ceremony for us, so I imagine guys will be ready to go."
About that, Arniel mentioned showing the players the video, and said: "they're all fired up. I think they want to get dressed right away."
At the end of all of this, none of it really matters. It's opening night. The barn will be packed. The Jackets are chomping at the bit. Let's bring it home!