I have to resist the urge to call this a "must win" game in late January for the Nashville Predators, because that's simply not true, but that doesn't mean it feels any less significant.
The Predators go on the road to take on the Minnesota Wild with their offense sputtering along, and their lineup going through changes with Juuso Parssinen being assigned to the Milwaukee Admirals on Tuesday.
With Parssinen out of the lineup for now, it appears the Predators are going to wait before calling up anyone else from Milwaukee to fill his spot. Instead, the Predators look to stick with their last starting lineup which took the 4-1 decisive loss to the Florida Panthers on Monday.
Storylines to Watch for Predators @ Wild
It was an absolute no show and embarrassing performance for the Predators the last time they saw the Wild on November 30, losing 6-1 at home. The Wild jumped all over them early by scoring three goals in the first period and chasing Juuse Saros out of the game in the second period after giving up four goals on 15 shots.
Both starting goalies have been confirmed for this matchup, with a rematch between Saros and Filip Gustavsson from that November 30 meeting. Gustavsson made 26 saves in the victory.
It's going to be Saros' sixth consecutive start and his 38th start of the season. Backup Kevin Lankinen hasn't appeared in a game in nearly two weeks. This looked like a good game to get Lankinen the start and give Saros some extra rest, even though Saros held things together as long as he could on Monday against the Panthers and the offense just didn't show up to support.
Despite the ugly start last time out against the Wild, Saros has enjoyed a lot of success in his career against this team. In nine career starts, Saros is 6-3-0 with two shutouts and a .930 save percentage.
The Wild are riding a three game winning streak and have been wildly, no pun intended, unpredictable as of late. Their three recent wins have come against quality opponents in the Panthers, Hurricanes and Capitals, scoring 16 goals in that stretch.
It's the opposite end of the spectrum for the Predators on offense lately, scoring just nine goals in their last five games while going 2-3-0.
So obviously if the recent trends continue, it's going to take either an absolutely gem from Saros or a dominant showing from the top line led with Filip Forsberg, Ryan O'Reilly and Gustav Nyquist. Quite frankly, it might take both to happen to beat an improving Wild team on Thursday in a hostile road environment.
Keys to Victory for Preds @ Wild
I just hinted at it and and will go further into it; Saros alone, even if he opens the game much better than he did in the first meeting, probably won't be enough to cool off the Wild at home. The offense is going to have to match the firepower that the Wild throw at the defense.
The Predators lately have been getting bullied off the puck, struggled with their zone exits and really had a hard time getting set up once they do get in the offensive zone. Almost like they're overthinking things and not playing as loose as we saw them during their stretch of success in December.
I'm looking for Forsberg and O'Reilly to find the scoresheet again, hopefully multiple times, and also for some depth scoring to finally show up. I've been waiting all year for Philp Tomasino to finally get rewarded with some goals, so maybe this is his game to do that and provide an offensive boost outside of the top line.
Furthermore, this has the potential to be game that the Predators power play breaks loose for a rewarding game. The Wild have the 31st ranked penalty kill at 72.8 percent, while the Predators are 24th so it's neither team's strong suites. Power play success is going to be key to find some offense for the Predators.
Another key to victory for the Predators is getting back into the dirty areas. When you're struggling to score goals, the best way to fight your way out of it is to hunt loose pucks off rebounds. You can't be shy about firing pucks into traffic, especially on the power play.
If the Predators can get back to the basics on offense and show more structure on their power play attempts, then they can hang with the Wild on the scoreboard and get back into the win column.
Game Picks for Predators @ Wild
I have the Predators coming in ready to play from the opening faceoff and getting off to a strong start. They know their season is in danger of going off the rails if they let this recent play snowball. This is solid opportunity to get a divisional win and trend back in the right direction.
Forsberg gets back into the scoring column with a goal, and O'Reilly finds success on the power play. Forsberg in particular has been held quiet over the last five games with zero goals. He needs to break out of it tonight.
Saros has ben very up and down, and when he has bad games they're usually horrendous on an epic scale. He played really well to keep it close against the Panthers on Monday and just needed goal support. If he gets some offense tonight, I see him playing just well enough to get a win.
I'm going with the Predators to win a back and forth game with plenty of offense, but ultimately they get the 4-3 overtime win.