Saturday, November 21, 2009

Four Lines Deep -- 11/21/09

Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Nashville Predators - Sommet Center
Fox Sports Ohio; 8 p.m. (EST)

Predators forward Jordin Tootoo, pictured left, is usually close to the action when they meet the Jackets.

If you live in Ohio - or have ever lived in the state north of Ohio - then you are well aware that this day is all about rivalries. R.J. Umberger knows all about it. Enough said. Regardless, this is an important game for the Jackets for a wide range of reasons. After a slow start, Nashville is 8-2 in the last 10 games. They have been competing well and recently beat the conference-leading San Jose Sharks and the New Jersey Devils. Clearly, they can compete with the league's best teams right now, and have won four in a row.

Saturday's tilt marks the second Central Division matchup thus far for the Jackets -- surely, they are hoping for a better result than the 9-1 drubbing they suffered at the hands (and feet, and elbows) of Detroit on November 11. It won't take much to get the Jackets motivated to win this game, but one has to wonder if they can bounce back with an appropriate level of energy after losing Dorsett to injury in Dallas and having an extremely physical game only two nights previous.

The Predators' powerplay has been fairly atrocious in the first quarter of the season -- not a tremendous surprise given their lack of goal scoring in even play. They are dead last in the league, averaging only 2.2 goals per game. However, the Jackets' defense and PK has been so inconsistent this year, that they can hardly afford to discount any team's powerplay efficacy. As proof, the Jackets are allowing 3.3 goals per game and currently rank 26th in the league in that category.  The Predators penalty kill is right in the middle (15th in league) at 80.6%.

First Line: Beat them at their own game.  Nashville has a great sense of continuity - due in no small part to the consistent presence of Barry Trotz on the bench. Much like the Jackets, Nashville puts a great deal of focus on the neutral zone trap and aggressive forechecking. No matter who takes the ice for the Predators, they stay true to their system, and for long stretches of time, have been more effective in that system than Columbus. That has to change - and the time is now. Columbus has size and grit in the lineup to counter Nashville's game plan -- and now has more firepower on the forward lines than its ever had, and that makes an opportunistic forecheck all the more deadly.   Nashville simply doesn't have the scoring in its lineup and that should allow the Jackets to pinch in from the points and take some chances. If the Jackets can rule the neutral zone, they should get two points on the road.

Second Line: Turn the Juice Loose.  Since his return from a brief injury rest, Huselius has been on fire. He's playing with passion, controlling the puck and looking to score. Jackets fans haven't seen this Huselius for awhile and he is managing the ice very effectively. Perhaps most impressively, he's been doing so in two very physical hockey games. He needs the puck on his stick - plain and simple.

Third Line: Hit everybody.  As Hitch mentioned in the post-game presser on Thursday evening, the Jackets are being mindful of their checking game again -- and it's paying big dividends. They have size and speed, and when those assets are combined with a commitment to punishing the other team, a lot of good things happen. The Jackets have to stay true to that commitment -- especially on the road. There is no doubt that Nashville will bring a physical presence to the game and the Jackets have to exceed it. The Predators powerplay isn't a tremendous threat (14.7%) and that should allow the Jackets to take some more liberties with physical play.

Fourth Line:  Support Mase. Sophomore slumps can still go away during the sophomore year. Mase has been playing really solid - with the notable exception of the Detroit massacre - and with Hejda and Commie now healthy and back in the lineup, he should be feeling much more confident. The Predators shouldn't generate more than 25-30 shots, and as long as the Jackets keep the shooting lanes free of screens and traffic, Mase should have another solid game. Building momentum and confidence for Mason is crucial for success on this road trip -- and certainly for the balance of the season.

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