By Ed Neely
The Nashville Predators embark on a Western Canadian road trip this week and will start off with Vancouver Canucks (14-13-4, 32 pts) tonight at Rogers Arena. They play the Edmonton Oilers (13-16-2, 28 pts) tomorrow night and then the Calgary Flames (16-12-3, 35 pts) on Saturday before returning home to play the Winnipeg Jets (18-8-5, 41 pts) next Tuesday back home at Bridgestone Arena.
The Preds are coming off five days of rest and should benefit from the extra days off by getting back some important players. Ryan Johansen, who has been out since December 2nd with an upper-body injury, is likely to return tonight. Scott Hartnell, who has been out since November 11th when he sustained a lower-body injury playing against the Pittsburg Penguins. Johansen participated in line rushes with Nick Bonino and Viktor Arvidsson, while Hartnell skated with Austin Watson and Colton Sissons. The return of Johansen bring one of the better playmakers in the league back into our lineup and Hartnell brings a very skilled and gritty presence back into the bottom six. That leaves just one Predators player still left on the injury report and stud defenseman Ryan Ellis is set to return, from knee surgery, around New Years.
The injury riddled Canucks are sitting in 6th in the Pacific Division and 14th in the Western Conference, but, with 32 points, are only 3 points out of a Wild Card spot and are still a dangerous team. Vancouver is without the services of Wings Sven Baertschi (upper-body injury) and Derek Dorsett (upper-body injury), Centers Bo Horvat (lower-body injury) and Brandon Sutter (lower-body injury) and Defenseman Erik Gudbranson (upper-body injury). They have lost their last three games so they will be looking to end their skid against the Preds tonight.
The Preds play the Oilers Thursday night at Rogers Place (yep, the same Rogers Communications from the Vancouver Canucks arena) in Edmonton. The Oilers, while sitting in next to last place with 28 points, are a threat to embarrass even the best goalies in the league on any given night. They have scored at least 4 goals in 5 of their last 7 games and hung a 6 goals on the Habs last Saturday and 7 goals on the Blue Jackets on Tuesday night so the Preds will do well to remember that this is a team that is full of offensive talent. The Oilers will likely be without the services of their starting net minder, Cam Talbot, who has been out with an upper-body injury since November 30th. Coach Todd McLellan said in an interview on December 9th that Talbot wouldn’t be rushed back. The Oilers are also having to compensate for injuries to Defensemen Andrej Sekera (lower-body injury) and Adam Larsson (upper-body injury). These injuries to Oilers Blue Liners, help us to understand why the Oilers are in the position hey are in.
The Predators close out this road trip in Calgary with a Saturday evening tilt against the Flames at the Scotiabank Saddledome. The Flames are 2-2-2 in the month of December with losses to The Wild, Maple Leafs, Flyers and Oilers and with wins against the Canadiens and Canucks. The Flames are currently without the services of RW Kris Versteeg (upper-body injury) and legendary RW Jaromir Jagr (lower-body injury). Versteeg will be out indefinitely following surgery to repair a torn labrum. Jagr has not practiced since playing against the Flyers on December 4th and has been dealing with this same nagging injury for the majority of the season. While he may be a legend, Jagr has only recorded 1 goal and 6 assists in 17 games played this season, so his absence may not have much of an impact on the outcome of the game.
While Western Canadian road trips can be difficult due to the travel, the Preds have fared well on these trips over the last couple of seasons and last year’s trip marked a turning point in the Predators’ season and helped to propel them into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. There is no reason to think this year will be any different. I predict the Preds will sweep this road trip and come back into Bridgestone Arena in a tie for 1st place in the Central Division with the Blues who play the Ducks on Thursday night and then have a back-to-back home and away with the Jets this weekend.