The Nashville Predators (13-11-2) hit the ice for the second of four straight home games tonight when they host the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks (14-12-4) at the Sommet Center. Nashville enters the contest poised to rebound from just its third regulation loss at home since mid-October on Thursday, a 5-2 defeat at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks. Anaheim, meanwhile, will be playing its third game in four nights, having dropped Buffalo, 4-1, at home on Wednesday, and defeated the Blackhawks in their barn, 5-3, a night ago.
The Predators and Ducks have already clashed once this season on the West Coast, with Anaheim coming out on top 3-1 (Oct. 17). Home cooking has been crucial in this series, as the past six contests, and eight of the past nine have been won by the home team. A season ago, two of the four games need extra time to decide the outcome, with each team taking a “W” out of the three-point games.
The defending Cup champs have had their ups and downs this season, winning just four of their first 13 games, before going on a 6-1-1 tear to start November. Since then, Anaheim is 4-4-1, but received season-changing news on Wednesday when last year’s playoff MVP Scott Niedermayer announced he would return after contemplating retirement this fall.
“It is fantastic for the league,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “To me, he is the best defenseman in the National Hockey League because he controls the game more than any other defenseman, both from an offensive and defensive side. He plays the game at a different level.”
Ryan Getzlaf, fresh off signing a five-year contract extension last month, paces the blue-collar Ducks in scoring with 32 points, playing alongside fellow 2003 Entry Draft pick Corey Perry, who paces the team in goals (15). Much of the Ducks offense starts on the back end with defensemen Chris Pronger, Mathieu Schneider and Francois Beauchemin frequently jumping into the play.
“Everything starts at the top with (general manager) Brian Burke and (head coach) Randy Carlyle,” Trotz said. “They went with an in-your-face philosophy and it has worked – they won a Stanley Cup. They have a hard-nosed attitude toward the game, and they rely on their star players to score, their checkers to check, and physical players to make it a safe working environment. They play a real meat and potatoes style of game.”
For Nashville, the key to pulling out the gritting games against Western Conference foes is being productive on special teams. The Preds rank amongst the league leaders in five-on-five production, but the power play has gone cold for portions of the season, and are currently ranked 26th in the league.
“The first period against Vancouver we played tremendous, but instead of being up by two or three it was only one goal, and they kind of chipped away at our game,” Trotz said. “They got two power-play goals to our none, and our special teams has to hold up to the opposition’s (special teams) every night.”
Nashville is expected to have Vernon Fiddler back in the lineup after a two-game hiatus, giving the coaching staff a bit more flexibility to put together lines that have shown chemistry this year. While the line of Martin Erat, J.P. Dumont and Jason Arnott has been the most consistent source of offense thus far, others have stepped up as well. Jed Ortmeyer has two goals in his last three games and Martin Gelinas has pitched in a pair of goals and an assist in the last five outings.
Erat paces the Preds with 25 points and 16 assists, having registered 14 points (7g-7a) in his last 10 games. Dumont has been producing a point-per-game clip himself, with six points (1g-5a) in the last six contests.
“We had really good chemistry with all four lines, but with Scotty Nichol’s suspension and Fiddler being hurt it has limited us as to what we can do with those combinations,” Trotz said. “We get the lines as close as we can to earlier in the year to make them work again.”
The blue line has pitched in offensively as well, with five goals and 11 points in the last four games. Dan Hamhuis has led the way of late with four points (1g-3a) in four games. He, along with Marek Zidlicky, sit atop the d-man scoring lead with 12 points apiece.
The Predators turn back around and play their third home game in five days when they host the rival Detroit Red Wings on Monday night at 7 p.m. CT. It is one of just two Monday home games for Nashville all season, and tickets are still available by calling (615) 770-PUCK, logging on to nashvillepredators.com or ticketmaster.com and by visiting the Sommet Center Box office located in the arena tower.
TONIGHT’S STORYLINES: Nashville has won three of its last four meetings against the Ducks at the Sommet Center… The Predators have gone 11-5-2 since Oct 25, outscoring opponents 29-16 in the third period of that span… Nashville has outshot its opponent in nine of the past 10 games, accumulating a 344-256 (plus-88) shot advantage in that span… Dan Hamhuis (23:44), Ryan Suter (21:30), and Marek Zidlicky (21:20) are all averaging more than 21 minutes per game for the Predators… Martin Erat is tied for second in the league in game-winning goals (4), and coupled with shoot-out performances, he has been in on six of the Preds past seven game-deciding goals. His two shoot-out deciding markers is also tied for second in the NHL… Radek Bonk ranks among the league leaders in shooting percentage (22.7%) with 10 goals on 44 shots… After tonight, these teams meet again Jan. 7 in Anaheim.