Two of the best defenses in the NHL square up in Music City tonight as the Nashville Predators host the Flames. Each team looks to jumpstart its season.
During the offseason, many media sources spent time trying to rank the NHL’s best defenses. Most of the time, it eventually boiled down to two teams: the Nashville Predators and the Calgary Flames. In terms of personnel, it’s true that there aren’t many blue lines that can top either of these. That said, there is a lot to watch from both teams in front of the blue line as well. Dangerous forwards, including plenty of young talent, will be in the spotlight.
The real danger posed by both of these teams comes from their respective first lines. For the Calgary Flames, that group contains Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Micheal Ferland. Here’s how they’ve looked so far, in terms of games played (GP), average time on ice (ATOI), goals (G), and assists (A):
In addition to this line, the Flames also have Matthew Tkachuk, an extremely physical young forward. Sam Bennett, another young talent, has been held to zero points in eight games. He will be eager to get his breakout game as early as tonight.
For the Nashville Predators, it’s been much of the same story. They’ve relied heavily on their first line to generate offense. As you know, this trio consists of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson. So far, here’s how they’ve produced:
The Predators would do well to start spreading the wealth in terms of scoring. That could come a number of different ways, most notably through Kevin Fiala. After a blistering breakout year, the young Swiss winger has failed to record a goal in eight games and has only three assists. Pontus Aberg, Craig Smith, and Calle Jarnkrok will also be looking to steal the show tonight.
At full strength, I would rank the Nashville Predators as the better defensive group here. However, with Ryan Ellis out and some serious uncertainty among the bottom three, I think the Flames have the advantage. Their defensive pairings are impressive, premiered by Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton. These two have the third and fourth best possession numbers on the entire team at even strength. Shots will not come easily against the two blueliners.
Their defense is rounded out by T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Brett Kulak, and Michael Stone. In terms of depth, this is an absolutely elite defensive group. Predators forwards will have to dig deep to find any foothold in the attacking zone.
The home team’s defense is extremely strong as well. As usual, it’s led off by Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm, who has been nothing but solid through eight games P.K. Subban and Alexei Emelin are next up, and have struggled slightly as a pair. Subban’s tendency to cheat forward can expose Emelin’s lack of speed, if not carefully balanced. This exact vulnerability singlehandedly allowed the Rangers’ first goal on Saturday.
The final pairing looks to be Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber, barring any last-minute adjustments. Really, I’d like to see Samuel Girard in at one of these spots. In fact, I’d like to see Girard next to Ekholm, Irwin with Subban, and Emelin with Josi. For the time being, though, the Predators will go with their usual combinations. Hopefully, they’ll be able to keep everything very tight in front of Pekka Rinne for the whole sixty minutes.
Predictions and more
While I am admittedly biased, I think this is a very winnable game for the Nashville Predators. They’ve shown once again that they are nearly impossible to beat at home, and will be heavily motivated by the boisterous crowd. Even with Calgary’s slight edge on defense, I think the Predators should win this game by a pair of goals. That result will require Rinne to be solid and the team to seriously push the pace from the first puck drop.
As a hockey fan, I’m excited to see the Flames’ first line in action, especially Johnny Gaudreau. As a trio, they’ve been lethal, and will certainly test Nashville’s defensemen. For the home side, this is a game with Viktor Arvidsson written all over it. His ability to disrupt on the forecheck and get the home fans out of their seats will be on display in a big way. Look for a great night from number 33 in gold.
Follow the game
Puck drop is at 7:00pm central time inside Bridgestone Arena. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports Tennessee, with pregame coverage at 6:30pm. As always, the game will be covered by Pete Weber and Hal Gill on 102.5 The Game, starting with the pregame show at 6:00pm.
If you’re able, definitely try to catch this game. It is set up to be an electric night in Smashville.