by Ed Neely
The Nashville Predators (22-9-5, 49 points) came out of the Christmas break with a 2-1 win over the St. Louis Blues and take on the Minnesota Wild (19-15-3, 41 points) on Friday night at the Xcel Energy Center. This is the first of a home and home back to back for the Preds and Wild.
The Predators are sitting atop the Central Division after taking over the spot (again) from the Blues and sit one point over the 2nd place Winnipeg Jets (21-11-6, 48 points) and 3rd place Blues (23-14-2, 48 points) and they have games in hand over the 2nd through 5th place teams in the Central.
The Wild are 7-5-0 in the month of December and are poised to get their #1 net minder, Devan Dubnyk, back who has missed the past six games with a lower-body injury. They will still be without the services of of their third leading goal scorer, Nino Niederreiter, who has been out indefinitely with a lower-body injury since December 22nd. They are also minus Zach Parise, who has missed every game this season following off-season back surgery.
The Predators lead the Wild in every statistical category except Penalty Kill % (4th place vs 6th place) and Shots Against per game (22nd place vs 25th place). That said, the Wild always play the Preds very well and are 4-2-0 vs the Preds dating back to the beginning of last season. The Predators will do well to shake off their slow first periods and figure out how to solve a newly returning and well rested Dubnyk (12-8-2, .918 sv%, 2.69 GAA).
The Predators are likely to start Juuse Saros (3-3-2, .918 sv%, 2.64 GAA) in net on Friday so that they can start Pekka Rinne (19-6-3, .924 sv%, 2.45 GAA) at home on Saturday. But regardless of whether they start Saros or Rinne on Friday in Minnesota, they are putting a goalie in that is closing out a great December. Saros has allowed only 5 goals in 4 games this month, whereas Rinne has posted a 5-2-1 record this month.
Prediction: Preds 4, Wild 1