Tonight, the Nashville Predators take on the Los Angeles Kings in the final matchup of a five-game home stand.
A 4-3 win over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night allowed the Predators to pull their record to an even 3-3. Nashville never trailed in the game and used strong performances from Craig Smith and Patric Hornqvist to register four goals for the first time this season.
Through six games, it has been difficult to get a definitive read on the team from Music City, as a lot of their predicted strengths and weaknesses have been flipped. One of the areas that has most been apparent is on defense.
A reliance on young defensemen was supposed to be a trouble spot that would have to be covered up by veterans Shea Weber, Kevin Klein and Roman Josi (if you can call him a “veteran”), and yet, it has been the young guns shouldering a large portion of the load and often carrying the play for Nashville.
Although Predators fans (and ESPN’s hockey analysts) had high hopes for Seth Jones going into the year, I don’t think even the most optimistic of us (and I would give myself a fair shot at that distinction) thought he would be playing at the level he has been. Or that Jones would look much more like a seven-year NHL veteran than a 19-year-old rookie.
Almost equally as important for Nashville has been the play of another rookie defenseman, Mattias Ekholm, who reportedly was going to be carried as the team’s seventh defensemen. Instead, the 23-year-old Swede (who had previously only played in three NHL games) has logged more than 20 minutes in four of six games and been one of the biggest surprises in the young season (and passed at least Ryan Ellis, and perhaps Victor Bartley as well, on the depth chart).
Through six games, the early emergence of Jones and Ekholm has been able to help cover up the slow starts for Klein and Bartley (and even Weber to a certain extent), but if the Preds want to succeed against tougher opponents (and long-term) then the defense as a whole will have to elevate their level of play (especially the veterans). Holding Florida to three goals was enough to get the win on Tuesday night, but that kind of effort probably won’t get the job done against Chicago or San Jose, for example.
The Predators defense will face a tough test tonight as one of the league’s best collections of power-forwards comes to town.
The Los Angeles Kings stand at 4-3 and will be looking to earn six out of a possible eight points on a four-game road trip that wraps up in Nashville. The Kings are coming off their worst performance of the season, which saw them drop a contest to Tampa Bay by a score of 5-1 and will be looking to rebound.
Los Angeles certainly has the ability to put a lot of pucks in the net, led by Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, but the Kings are also a very defensively-responsible club and are just as happy to slow the pace of the game and play a 2-1 or 1-0 hockey game.
If the Predators want to pickup a win at home tonight, they will have to limit their defensive zone turnovers (of which they had too many in the game against Florida) and be sure to capitalize off the rush and on any power play opportunities awarded them. Nashville’s offense has often fizzled off the rush so far this season and that cannot happen against a Los Angeles squad that will not give up many offensive opportunities of any kind.
I’m admittedly very much going with my heart on this one, but I’m picking Nashville to escape with a win tonight. Although Pekka Rinne has looked pretty human this season, he traditionally raises his level of play based on the Preds opponent and I expect tonight’s contest to be one of those instances.
Prediction: 3-2 Nashville. (Colin Wilson with the GWG)
(Bonus: Pekka Rinne registers over 30 saves.)
Follow @PredlinesNSH as I’ll be tweeting updates throughout the game tonight. See you at the rink!