by Ed Neely
The Nashville Predators (49-16-11, 109 points) play host to the San Jose Sharks (44-23-10, 98 points) at Bridgestone Arena tonight in the deciding match for the season series. The Preds fell 4-1 to the Sharks in San Jose on November 1st and then dropped a touchdown on them in February with a 7-1 shellacking of the Pacific Division’s 2nd ranked team on February 22nd back home in Smashville. This game will be a good test heading in to the post-season and could be a preview of the Western Conference Final.
The Sharks, coming off an overtime loss to the Blues on Tuesday night, are still one of the hottest teams in the league at this point, having gone 8-0-1 in their last 9 games and the Preds have gone 5-2-2 over the same length of time. The Sharks have benefited greatly from the acquisition of Evander Kane, whom they picked up from Buffalo at the trade deadline. This essentially rehabilitation move, is working out better than anyone could have imagined and Kane has posted 9 goals and 5 assists in the 14 games he has played in a Sharks uniform. When you combine Kane’s recent production and that of Brent Burns (62 points), Joe Pavelski (61 points) and Logan Couture (57 points), they have the ability to put the puck in the back of almost any net in the NHL. They will have some added motivation tonight because they can clinch a playoff spot with a win tonight.
The Predators righted the ship on Tuesday night against the Minnesota Wild in a 2-1 Shootout win that was the most complete effort by the Predators in weeks. The Preds have, perhaps, the most balanced scoring team in the league right now, having 4 players with at least 20 goals, 14 with at least 10 goals on the season and 2 more ready to pass that mark. The Preds have outscored their opponents 53-38 since the last time they played San Jose, This team is looking to build on the last game in an effort to get the mojo back that has seemingly been missing since Calle Jarnkrok was injured against the Jets on March 13th. Jarny’s absence has been felt much more than most fans in Nashville would have ever thought. When you add that to the loss of Preds Masterton Trophy nominee, Austin Watson (day-to-day, upper body), who is one of the emotional leaders of this team and is known to hit anything (and everything) that moves, not shy away from blocking any shot, and is a devil on the penalty kill.
If this game should come down to another goaltending duel, the Predators should be able to hold their own. Pekka Rinne has gone 41-11-4 this season and is the current front runner for the Vezina Trophy has 8 shutouts on the season, 5 of which have come since the All-Star Break. The goaltending situation in San Jose is a bit different this season. Martin Jones has posted a respectable .929 Save % and 2.20 GAA over the last 5 games, but only has a .918 Save % and 2.45 GAA on the season. Jones’ backup, Aaron Dell, has posted worse numbers on the year with a 2.67 GAA and .913 Save %, so no matter who is in net for the Sharks tonight, look for them to try and make it a shooting match in order to level the playing field.
Tolvanen Watch: Predators prospect and KHL phenom, Eeli Tolvanen, officially landed in Smashville in the overnight hours and was on the ice for the morning skate today. He will be wearing the #11 and could see playing time as soon as Saturday against Buffalo. The Predators coaching staff want him to watch one game from the press box so that he can cut through the jet lag and get a feel for Bridgestone Arena and the raucous Smashville crowds, before he makes his Predators debut.
Injury Update: Calle Jarnkrok skated with the team yesterday but still has no time frame for his return other than “the end of the regular season”. Austin Watson took part in the Morning Skate today and is still listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Yannick Weber is still listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
Projected Lineup: The projected lineup, based on the line rushes in this morning’s practice are as follows (no starting goalie has been announced):
Filip Forsberg – Ryan Johansen – Viktor Arvidsson
Kevin Fiala – Kyle Turris – Craig Smith
Miikka Salomaki – Nick Bonino – Colton Sissons
Scott Hartnell – Mike Fisher – Ryan Hartman
Roman Josi – Ryan Ellis
Mattias Ekholm – P.K. Subban
Alexei Emelin – Matt Irwin
Photo: Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports