Shea Weber became a Nashville Predator for life (or something close to it) last summer. But thanks to a lockout partially brought about because of contracts like the one he was offered by the Philadelphia Flyers and which was matched by Nashville, he hasn’t yet been able to take the reins of his team and beginning guiding them down the road to the Stanley Cup. Tonight he’ll finally get his chance to do so, playing in front of the home crowd against one of the most important teams on Nashville’s schedule. Most of the time that would mean a particularly tough opponent. In this case it’s Nashville’s whipping boys, the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Though both teams came into the league during the same wave of expansion – the Preds in 1998-99 and Columbus two seasons later – their trajectories couldn’t be more different. Nashville steadily became better before making the playoffs in its fifth season and only missing them one time since. Not so coincidentally, that was the same season (2008-09) that the Blue Jackets made their one and only playoff appearance. The moral victory of finishing ahead of Nashville was all Columbus got for its efforts, losing 4-0 to Detroit in the first round.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have all-time losing records against 22 of the league’s 30 franchises, but in their 69 games against Nashville they have been particularly bad, going 19-49-1 for a winning percentage of just .283 over 11 seasons. In games against the Predators Columbus scores just 2.2 goals on average, while giving up 3.2 on average. This is the long way of saying that there’s no team in the NHL that hates seeing the Nashville Predators more than the Columbus Blue Jackets.
There’s a case to be made that Nashville’s dominance over the Blue Jackets is one of the major determining factors behind at least a few of its playoff appearances. The most obvious cases came in 2003-04 and 2007-08, both seasons in which Nashville earned the 8th seed in the playoffs by finishing with 91 points. In both ’03-’04 and ’07-’08 the Edmonton Oilers finished 9th in the conference (with 89 points and 88, respectively). Just two or three games going differently against their lesser Central Division rival could have taken two chances at Lord Stanley’s Cup away from Nashville and given them to a team that already has five titles.
In a normal, 82-game season, the 12 potential points against Columbus in the six games between the two teams represent roughly 13 percent of what’s needed to qualify for the playoffs. This year Columbus is one of just two opponents Nashville will play five times in the shortened schedule, meaning the Preds have a chance at 10 points in the standings against a team they have historically dominated. Those 10 points represent somewhere around 19 percent of what the team will likely need to qualify for the playoffs this year, and a sweep of Columbus isn’t out of the question.
That’s why it’s absolutely imperative that Shea Weber begin this newest phase of his career by continuing to make a doormat out of the Columbus Blue Jackets. This isn’t the start of his captaincy, but it is the first time he’s been the team’s single biggest star. It’s also the first time the team has shelled out nine figures for a single player. If game one of the Superstar Weber era were to end with Columbus raising their sticks in the air – in Nashville, no less – there would be a lot of grumbling around town and instant “told you so” talk from the outside. If it ends with a Nashville win, Weber will have performed to fans’ expectations. But more importantly, he’ll have given his team a jump start toward the playoffs in a very tough Central Division at Columbus’ expense – and that’s a longstanding Nashville Predators tradition.