Can you believe it? The puck is finally about to drop on the NHL regular season tonight.
Three games are on the docket tonight, with the Maple Leafs visiting the Montreal Canadiens, Capitals taking on the defending-champion Blackhawks and in Edmonton, Jets versus Oilers in the late game.
Unfortunately, Predators fans will have to wait a little longer to see their team in action, but a new season and a fresh start is only a couple more days away. Nashville has an abnormal schedule of games this week, playing only a back-to-back set on the road to start the 2013-14 campaign. The two contestants the Preds will face are both from the newly-realigned Central Division (Conference iii) and will be a good measuring stick for the team from Music City, right off the bat.
Thursday, October 3rd, 7:30 pm *new time* (CT): Nashville Predators at St. Louis Blues
2013 season series: (Blues win 3-1).
Last year, the Blues were a popular pick to win the Central Division and even to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals, but they came up short on both accounts. St. Louis finished second in the Central behind the Blackhawks (but still three spots ahead of the Predators) and lost an entertaining first-round series, 4-2 to the Los Angeles Kings.
The Blues made a couple upgrades to their forward group this offseason, but overall their core group (especially on defense) remains intact. The biggest change may be seen in the team’s bottom-six forwards, as St. Louis essentially completely-overhauled their third line, adding Maxim Lapierre, Brendan Morrow and Magnus Paajarvi. The Blues are also hoping newly-signed, center Derek Roy will have a bounce-back year offensively and may ask him to help to fill the hole left by David Perron (who was traded to Edmonton).
The Blues play a style very similar to the Nashville Predators, as head coach Ken Hitchcock uses a group of forwards (lacking a superstar scorer) to play tight, defense-first hockey that shuts down the opponent’s top line and waits for opportunities to counter (if you’ve followed the Preds for more than five minutes, this should sound very familiar).
Expect this game to be very low scoring and slowly paced. Both teams will likely be waiting for the other to make a mistake–and barring a huge number of power plays–offensive chances will be hard to find. The Blues were better than Nashville on the ice last year and it seems they’ve improved this offseason as well, so I give St. Louis the edge.
Prediction: 3-1 St. Louis. (Two-point night and game-winning goal going to Blues T.J. Oshie)
(Bonus: Blues add an empty-net goal late, Pekka Rinne keeps Nashville in the game for most of the contest, but it isn’t enough.)
Friday, October 4th, 8:00 pm (CT): Nashville Predators at Colorado Avalanche
2013 season series: (Avs win 2-1).
It’s hard to find a team whose regular season went worse than the Preds last year, but a few examples do exist, and the Avalanche are one of them. Until last season, the Predators had not lost to the Avs in more than two years (going a combined 8-0 against them in 2010-11 and 2011-12). Colorado’s fortunes changed against Nashville this past season, but that newly-found success wasn’t present in many other areas as the Avalanche missed the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five years.
The biggest offseason change for the Avs came through the NHL Entry Draft, as the franchise used the No. 1 overall pick–not on Seth Jones–but on forward Nathan MacKinnon. Collecting (and relying on) young, offensively-gifted forwards has been the modus operandi for the Avs for the last few years now (and this trend looks to continue). Colorado has been one of the youngest teams in the league the past few years and that will not change this season (as they will once again be led by 20-year-old captain Gabriel Landeskog and perhaps the 18-year-old MacKinnon).
This contest should be a higher scoring affair than Thursday’s game against the Blues, and it will be important for Nashville to establish a lead early before tired legs and high altitude start to really take their affect.
Prediction: 4-2 Nashville. (Game-winning goal scored by Gabriel Bourque)
(Bonus: Although held off the scoresheet, Colin Wilson is clearly Nashville’s best player on the ice, making quality passes and holding onto the puck in tight spaces.)
If they’re able to get it, Nashville should feel fine about a 1-1 start on the road to begin the 2013-14 campaign. How do you think the Preds perform in their first two games? Chime in below.