If the Predators received a point for every storyline in Thursday’s game against the Senators they would’ve already clinched the President’s Trophy. From the glaring obvious (Mike Fisher’s homecoming) to the subtle (faceoff of two former USA WJC teammates in Colin Wilson and Ottawa’s Jim O’Brien, Wilson and Roman Josi playing in the same building where they were drafted in 2008) to the disheartening (Chris Phillips’ first 2 goals of the season in his 1000th NHL Game) (In a related story Coach Trotz apparently took a page out of Bill Bilichick’s coverage schemes and allowed Phillips to “Manningham” them on both goals) storylines were everywhere. However despite a thrilling game and a script that would fit any such dramatic thriller, the Preds fell short 4-3 to the young and fearless Senators. They now find themselves marching into Boston to face the reeling Bruins who are coming off a dismal performance to the lowly Buffalo Sabers. Despite their recent woes there is a reason the Bruins are amongst the Eastern Conference elite (and the reigning champs for that matter) and that is their stellar play and a team structure that closely mirrors that of the Predators. Beginning with elite goaltending, continuing with a steady and reliable two way defense corps and rounding out with four lines of gritty forwards who all play 200 foot games both teams can beat opponents in a number of different ways (One glaring difference though is the Bruins unlike the Preds have a bona fide “superstar” forward in the form of All Star second year winger Tyler Seguin). If the Predators consider themselves legitimate Stanley Cup contenders this is a great opportunity to make a statement and make the rest of the league and fans everywhere take notice. Much like the Ottawa game there are storylines abound in this game against the reigning champs, three storylines in the form of key matchups stand out over all.
Tim Thomas vs. Pekka Rinne
Neither guy came into the league highly touted, but both have proven doubters wrong and established themselves as arguably the two best goaltenders in the league (Fans in New York and Los Angeles may say differently). Thomas won his second Vezina Trophy last season edging out Rinne before going on one of the most memorable post season runs of all time in winning the Stanley Cup. This season he’s been his usual self and has been turning aside opposing shooters (and the President of the United States for that matter, but that’s a separate issue) with ease, if the Bruins looks to get back on track and become the first repeat champions in over a decade they need Timmy to be Timmy (For all non-Bostonians that’s a play on Manny Ramirez’s “Manny being Manny” antics off the field and exploits on it that Sox fans dealt with for seven years). Rinne was rewarded this season with a 7 year/$49 million extension to stay in the Music City and has been a big reason the Predators success. Last year he was stellar in the playoffs despite bowing out in the second round and if the Predators hope to make that long postseason run they’ll need more of the same.
Edge: Thomas, but it’s close. Thomas has something to prove after a rough outing in relief against Buffalo (And a controversial day after post on his official Favebook) and as we’ve seen in the past when Thomas has something to prove, good luck trying to beat him.
Shea Weber vs. Zdeno Chara
In a matchup of the two Norris Trophy front runners and the two finalists in the hardest shot contest at the All Star skills competition an adjective filled build up is not needed because these two guys let their play do the talking. All due respect to Nicklas Lidstrom, this is a showdown of the two best defensemen in the league, Chara (narrowly) edged out Weber in the hardest shot contest, their stats are close and their contributions to their respective teams go far and beyond statistics. Size, toughness, skill, leadership the similarities between the two are uncanny, it seems the only difference is hardware, although that may very well change this year. Chara in addition to the Stanley Cup has won a Norris Trophy (2009) and has established himself as one of the best NHL defensemen of the last decade. Weber on the other hand is at this present moment the best defenseman in the league after losing out to Lidstrom for the Norris Trophy (Lifetime achievement award?) last year the Norris is his to lose this season. A Norris Trophy and a long postseason run will set him up nicely for a big (record breaking?) payday on July 1st as he is a restricted free agent.
Edge: Weber: There is more to the game than shooting the puck hard into an empty net in a skills contest and Weber brings it all. I’m a lifelong Bruins fan and Chara is one of my all-time favorite players but he is such a distant second it’s not even close. No more needs to be said.
Brad Marchand vs. Jordin Tootoo
Two guys who can only be described as “little balls of hate” (When President Obama gives you a moniker it seems to stick) will surely be at their agitating best in the matinee matchup. Riding shotgun with Selke front runner Patrice Bergeron and second year sensation Tyler Seguin Marchand is enjoying a career year (In fairness it’s his second year in the league) following a great postseason run (Becoming the first rookie since Jeremy Roenick to net double digits in postseason goals) and has been doing his best to irk other teams off their game to complement his offensive game (see his five game suspension for clipping Sami Salo). Tootoo is also enjoying a career year (Already establishing a career high in assists) and has spent some time in Principal Shanahan’s office (2 Games for running Ryan Miller), a year after spending time in the NHL substance abuse program Tootoo is playing his best hockey. It seems fighting and defeating his demons has made Tootoo a new player, he’s providing timely offense to complement his rough and tumble style and giving Nashville offensive depth in the bottom six forwards that they’ve lacked in the past.
Edge: Marchand, he’s taken Sean Avery’s title (That’s not exactly the best way to compliment someone on their play but it fits) as best pest in the league and he won’t be relinquishing that for the next decade or so. He’s a first line to scoring winger to boot. (He also got his first NHL point against the Predators in 2009)
Another subtle storyline is Colin Wilson playing in the city where he played his college hockey and scored his first NHL goal. As someone who had the privilege of watching both that standouts out as my favorite part of the matchup. He truly was a treat to watch at BU and his first goal was another moment that was special to see, it’s great for him to be back in Boston especially during the Beanpot weekend.
For a video complement relevant to the blog I’m including this piece I did a few weeks ago on the Predators chances of bringing the Stanley Cup to the Music City.