Well, here we are, finally! The entire NHL has had exactly six days to get ready, to practice, and to get in shape. It's game time. What could possibly go wrong?
In all seriousness, this is going to be a true-test for the new-look Jackets. Todd Richards has had six days to cobble together a lineup featuring several new faces. He's had six days to see how his new assistant coaches work with the team. He's had six days to figure out who's ready to play. He's had six days to decide which goaltender gives him the best chance to win.
To be fair, the Predators have had those same six days. But it's safe to say they came in with a little more continuity on their side.
I expect the Jackets lineup to be fluid tonight, depending on who's playing well and who isn't. Look for Richards to tinker a bit with the lines if the team struggles to find its way early on. Conditioning will play a huge factor in this game, as well. Not everyone in the league has been playing during the lockout, so it will be key to see who has their legs and who doesn't, and how quickly actual NHL game speed wears on some of the players. So far, the injury bug has been light (well, with only six days...), as Cam Atkinson is the only Jacket on the report. He's listed as probable with a lower-body injury.
It figures that the Jackets kick off the season on the road in a building that has been their own personal nightmare for most of the last decade. But, there's a silver lining: with so many new faces over the past two seasons, a lot of the guys on the team now don't share that history. James Wisniewski broke the losing streak last year with a playoff slap-shot goal. Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Nick Foligno, and Sergei Bobrovsky come in with a combined 13 career games against the Predators all-time, so if ever there was a chance to "change the culture" surrounding playing on the road in Nashville, it's now.
For the Preds, they're coming off another masterful Barry Trotz season in which we saw him again spin straw into gold to the tune of 104 points and a trip to the Conference Semifinals. However, the club had an interesting off-season, with the departure of stud defenseman Ryan Suter and the entire Shea Weber saga. Suuuure, Captain, you wanted to be in Nashville all along. Sounds plausible.
Knowing the Preds as we do, they will be sound defensively and with Pekka Rinne in goal. It's up front where the questions lie. Hey, and speaking of questions...
A new feature we're working on this season all across SBNation is to engage our rivals in some banter before each game. To that end, we're reaching out to each opponent's blog with three questions in advance of the game. Here are tonight's questions, answered by Dirk Hoag of On the Forecheck:
1. The Preds have always gotten it done with solid defense. How much does losing Ryan Suter hurt not only the defense, but the transition game and special teams as well?
DH: While Roman Josi is pegged for top pair duty alongside Shea Weber, it's not like he will single-handedly be asked fill Suter's skates. In 5-on-5, the concern will be Josi's ability to battle against top forwards in the defensive zone, but as far as moving the puck and jumping into the rush goes, he should prove excellent there. On the penalty kill, the left side will mostly be manned by Scott Hannan and Hal Gill (who should be fine). The power play is a little more unsettled, as it looks like Sergei Kostitsyn will work into the mix back on the left point, where I'm sure Josi will also get plenty of time.
2. Offensively, it's always seemed to be a "score by committee" effort in Nashville. Are the pieces still in place to score enough goals?
DH: Goal-scoring is probably my biggest concern about this team. Yes, they had the #1 power play in the league last year, and finished 8th in goal-scoring overall, but that was thanks in part to some unusually high shooting percentages, which are unlikely to be reproduced. My hope is that Craig Smith, who has dynamite potential, gets the opportunity to take a leading role.
3. Seriously, how does Barry Trotz do it every year?
DH: I'd say the biggest factor in Nashville is that his players respect him. He's been here forever, has a distinct style of play which he expects out of guys, and he gets it, for the most part. Even when some players have trouble fitting into that mold (I'm thinking about Colin Wilson here), it doesn't seem like there's animosity that brews between player & coach. This allows him to establish a clearly understood team foundation, which is what allows some "lesser" players to step in and succeed, because there's a specific role for them to fill, and the rest of the group knows how to work with that.
Check over at OTF to see the three questions they had for us, and my responses.
Columbus Blue Jackets
('11-'12 record: 28-46-7, 63 Points; 5th division, 15th conference)
|R.J. Umberger||Derick Brassard||Cam Atkinson|
|Brandon Dubinsky||Artem Anisimov||Derek Dorsett|
|Nick Foligno||Ryan Johansen||Vinny Prospal|
|Matt Calvert||Derek MacKenzie||Jared Boll|
|Fedor Tyutin||Nikita Nikitin|
|Jack Johnson||James Wisniewski|
|John Moore||Adrian Aucoin|
('11-'12 record: 48-26-8, 104 Points; 2nd Division, 4th Conference)
|Sergei Kostitsyn||Mike Fisher||Martin Erat|
|Craig Smith||David Legwand||Patric Hornqvist|
|Colin Wilson||Paul Gaustad||Matt Halischuk|
|Brian McGrattan||Nick Spaling||Brandon Yip|
|Roman Josi||Shea Weber|
|Scott Hannan||Kevin Klein|
|Hal Gill||Ryan Ellis|
01/19/13 - Columbus at Nashville
03/19/13 - Nashville at Columbus
03/23/13 - Columbus at Nashville
04/04/13 - Columbus at Nashville
04/27/13 - Nashville at Columbus
'11-'12 Head to Head
Nashville Columbus 2.83 (8) GPG 2.41 (26) 2.50 (t8) GAPG 3.13 (28) 21.6% (1) PP% 15.5% (24) 83.6% (10) PK% 76.6% (30) Patric Hornqvist, 27 G leader Rick Nash, 30 Martin Erat / Ryan Suter, 39 A leader Vinny Prospal, 39 Martin Erat, 58 Pts leader Rick Nash, 59 Jordin Tootoo, 92 PIM leader Derek Dorsett, 235 26-10-5 Home/Road 12-25-4
- The Suter Effect? - One of the big, unquantifiable questions I've always had is: how much better did Ryan Suter make Shea Weber? We may start to find out tonight. Also of note: Suter routinely led the Preds in ice time. Are the next men up ready to step up?
- Top Line Solidity - The Jackets' top line is really the only mark of continuity from last season, as that trio seemed to play well together down the stretch in 2012. The Jackets will need them to lead the charge. Derick Brassard has a career 2/8/10 in 20 games against Nashville, and RJ Umberger has a tidy 7/10/17 in 25 games. Cam Atkinson finished 2012 strong with five goals in the last two games. If the top line can drive the play offensively, the Jackets may have a shot at stealing the win.
- Goaltending - As usual, this is the huge question mark for the Jackets. Sergei Bobrovsky played well in the KHL during the lockout, and both 'tenders have looked decent in the albeit truncated training camp. Can one--or both--of them step up this season? With 48 games in 99 days, they're both going to have to.
Let's drop the puck already! It's only been, what, like 9 months!