It’s officially opening day of the 2023-24 Nashville Predators season with a massive opponent to get things rolling, the Tampa Bay Lightning on the national television stage of ESPN.
The Predators and Lightning both enter this season-opening matchup with a lot of uncertainties and fresh looks to their roster. The Lightning had to shake up their depth, but still have the same superstars up top, while the Predators will be leaning on a blend of new veterans and younger talent.
A big development regarding this matchup happened just two weeks ago when the unexpected injury news dropped on star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who will miss at least the next two months.
This unfortunate news for the Lightning tilts the scales a little more towards the Predators, although I would still give a slight edge overall to the Lightning in this matchup.
The Predators are entering the season without any players on the injury report, one of just four teams that can say that:
Without further ado, here’s my three impact players for the Nashville Predators, who are looking to get a huge statement win on the road to open 2023-24 for the NHL.
Impact Player #1: Saros Will have to Be Sharp and Face a lot of Shots
It’s the trade off you get with a fast-paced and up tempo offensive system. The Predators, while still getting accustomed to a new offense, are likely going to turn the puck over in the neutral zone and give Tampa Bay some odd man rushes to test Juuse Saros.
Luckily for the Predators, we know that Saros is no stranger to stealing games for this team. Saros had a 64-save win over the Carolina Hurricanes last season, five games with 40-plus saves, and several more games with 35 saves or more.
I’m fully expecting Saros to have to make somewhere in the range of 35 to 40 saves against the Lightning, especially if the Predators are baited into a few penalties and the Lightning get to tee off with their top end power play. That could spell disaster fast.
This matchup has the makings of Saros needing to be at prime level to keep this one close throughout, and give the Predators a chance to take the game-winning goal in the final frame.
In Saros’ two matchups against the Lightning last season he made 36 saves on 39 shots to take the overtime loss, and then had a rough outing on the road giving up five goals on 33 shots faced.
Impact Player #2: O’Reilly will Need to Control the Pace, Showcase his Leadership
Ryan O’Reilly was brought in not just for what he can do on the ice, but also with his intangibles. However, in this one, O’Reilly is going to be leaned on to settle everything down with the early game jitters, and be trusted to make smart decisions to find his linemates.
O’Reilly has received the honor of getting alternate captain, alongside Ryan McDonagh as the other alternate captain, and Roman Josi being the Nashville Predators captain.
I’m really expecting big things from O’Reilly in terms of winning important faceoffs, controlling the pace methodically, and bringing out the best in Filip Forsberg.
O’Reilly is going to be an important factor into the Predators being much more effective on the power play. If this game comes down to special teams effectiveness, then the Predators will need to connect on some of their power plays, because I expect Tampa Bay to do the same with their man advantages.
O’Reilly wanted to come to Nashville. He wanted to be part of something bigger than himself. To be a locker room leader for these younger players. Excited to see how it shapes out in the first game.
Impact Player #3: Novak Looks to Stay Among Top Predators Scorers
Can Thomas Novak keep going his momentum he built last season after being called up in mid December? He’s made that full-time jump to the NHL, and now it’s time for him to become a mainstay in Nashville’s top-six.
Novak should get a strong look at getting second line center duties for Nashville in this matchup. It’s still incredible to think that Novak finished third on the Predators in points despite not making his season debut until the middle of December.
The keys to the Nashville Predators becoming a well-oiled offensive machine starts with being able to roll out their top two lines with equal force. The best teams in the NHL roll out two top lines that are equally lethal.
Novak has proven he’s ready to lead a second line behind O’Reilly at the top. I’d love to see his linemates be Philip Tomasino and Gustav Nyquist. That gives you a trusted veteran and a common linemate who already have chemistry together.
Despite the issues the Predators had on the power play, Novak was a bright spot for them. He notched five power play goals and seven power play assists. I’m looking for him to help ignite Nashville’s power play to top half of the league in 2023-24.