Tonight is the first of five meetings between Columbus and the Nashville Predators. (PHOTO: Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports)

Gameday: Columbus Blue Jackets at Nashville Predators, 1/19/13

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

at NASHVILLE PREDATORS

January 19th, 2013
Bridgestone Arena
Nashville, Tennessee
7:00 p.m. CST
TV: FOX Sports Tennessee

The Nashville Predators open their 2013 NHL season at home tonight against perennial Central Division cellar-dwellers, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

(48-26-8 last season, 2nd in Central)

Nashville fought two big free-agency battles over the summer, losing Ryan Suter but retaining Shea Weber after matching an offer sheet from Philadelphia. The big question is how the team’s strategy of responding to those changes with a reliance on young, homegrown defensemen will work out.

Key players

The Nashville Predators’ leadership corps will be hugely important for the team this season, and they’ll have the chance to get off to a good start by playing one of their favorite opponents. Captain Weber has 30 points (8G-22A) in 36 career games against Columbus, and alternate captain Mike Fisher scored 6 of his 24 goals last season against the Blue Jackets. But it’s the newest alternate captain, Martin Erat, who has enjoyed the most success against Columbus. Erat has scored more points against them than any other team in his NHL career. In 54 games against the Blue Jackets he has put up 50 points (15G-35G) including this overtime game-winner in a 6-5 comeback victory last December:

Pekka Rinne (43-18-8, 2.39 GAA, .923 SV%) is the other key. He gave up 15 goals in his first four games against Columbus last season before giving up just one goal in the last two games. This ought to be one of the easiest games on Nashville’s entire schedule, and he’ll want to set a different tone to start this year.

Others to watch

The Nashville youth movement has also had some early success against Columbus.

Roman Josi (5G-11A) scored the second goal of his NHL career in the game Erat won in overtime. He’ll be partnered with Shea Weber for the first time tonight against the Blue Jackets.

Craig Smith (14G-22A) will be playing on the second line to start the season, and both fans and the coaching staff will be expecting a lot from him. His first career goal came in last year’s season opener against the Blue Jackets – nothing pretty, but an example of the kind of don’t-quit effort that makes him valuable above and beyond his speed:

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

(29-46-7 last season, 5th in Central)

This team has undergone major reconstructive surgery for the second year in a row, shedding its top scorer and its long-time captain. Its newest members will be in the spotlight from the start.

Key players

After Steve Mason suffered through a truly miserable 2011-12 season (16-26-3, 3.39 GAA, .894 SV%), management acquired Sergei Bobrovsky in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers. Bobrovsky’s numbers weren’t a lot better in Philly (14-10-2, 3.02, .899) but Columbus is hoping his KHL form during the lockout (1.94, .932 in 24 games with SKA St. Petersburg) is more indicative of his talents. It looks from the last Blue Jackets training camp report as if he’s slotted in the depth chart above Mason, but the team hasn’t yet made an announcement about who will start in Nashville. No matter which player is in between the pipes tonight, Columbus is hoping to see some kind of sign that the situation in goal is improving. UPDATE: Bobrovsky is starting tonight:

 

But Columbus’ big trade saw its captain, Rick Nash, head to the Rangers in return for Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov. They’ll compose two-thirds of the team’s second line, so their performance this season will have a lot of bearing on how bad things get in Columbus. Dubinsky regressed to 34 points (10G-24) last season after posting a career-high 54 (24G-30A) the year before. Put that together with the move to a new team and there’s a lot of pressure on him to achieve this season.

Jack Johnson comes to play the Nashville Predators

Columbus is hoping for good things from Jack Johnson this season. (PHOTO: Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports)

Others to watch

Jack Johnson arrived in Columbus late last season in the trade that sent Jeff Carter to the Los Angeles Kings. The Blue Jackets named him one of their three assistant captains and are hoping he can help stabilize a young defensive corps playing on the second pair with James Wisniewski.

Vaclav Prospal was the only Blue Jackets player other than the departed Rick Nash to top 50 points last season. But he’s 37 years old now – can he put up another respectable season to help the Blue Jackets erase the memory of their worst campaign since 2003-04?

Bottom line

The Nashville Predators need to get this short season off to a fast start, and Columbus is probably the weakest opponent they’ll face all year. They’ll be heavy favorites against the Blue Jackets and anything less than a win will be unacceptable.

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Tags: Columbus Blue Jackets Nashville Predators

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