A new decade begins, and for the NHL, that means outdoor hockey in Texas. There’s a mechanical bull (and live pig races!) on the field at the Cotton Bowl, and for one day the hockey world will be focused on urban professionals from the new south kicking back in their polished cowboy boots, tailgating with catered barbecue, and listening to pop country.
It’s time to celebrate every overused cliche, y’all. Yee-haw. There is national exposure here, so sit back and enjoy the narrative for what it is - a good story. Without that narrative, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to fill the Cotton Bowl with 85,000 fans to watch a hockey game!
Lets keep the real story to ourselves: there are a good number of well spoken, intelligent hockey minds that follow the Dallas Stars, and in spite of the catfish, I’m going to presume the same for the Nashville Predators.
The build up with all of its pageantry is nearing the end. That means that it’s almost time for the puck to drop, and when that happens, what’s left is a hockey game between two central division rivals who are both fighting for a playoff spot.
To be honest, neither team has been playing at top form. The Stars come into the game at 6-3-1 in their last ten, but that includes the firing of a coach and a stretch of disastrously bad play that was only saved by 60 minutes of Anton Khudobin larceny against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Nashville is 5-4-1 during that same stretch. When they’ve been able to win, they’ve done it by outscoring their opponents. On the season, the Predators are giving up 3.3 goals a game, but that number has ballooned to four over the last five games. A quick look at the Central Division standings shows that goal suppression is a much better predictor of success than goal scoring.
Ultimately, what matters is scoring more than you give up, and neither team has been doing that very well as of late.
There has been a pattern to Stars games against the Predators since the middle of their first round playoff series last year. Nashville frequently runs up the number of shots, but the Stars defense keeps those shots to the outside of the rink. Shots that make it through end up being relatively easy saves for either Khudobin or Ben Bishop.
On the other end, Nashville has yet to figure out the combination of physicality that Jamie Benn brings, especially when combined with a second line that features the speed game of Roope Hintz (and now Denis Gurianov). During their six game playoff series win, Dallas exposed the Predator’s second line, and Nashville was never able to find an adjustment to negate the advantage.
The Predators retooled during the off-season with what look like moves to specifically address these issues. Gone is P. K. Subban and his penalty filled rivalry with Benn. In is Matt Duchene to bolster a second scoring line.
The changes have yet to gel, and when the teams met for the first time this season in Nashville on December 14, the script played out in a similar fashion. A 4-1 Stars victory kept to form, and Dallas used a four goal second period to cruise to the win.
Dallas Stars Lineup
Jamie Benn (14) - Tyler Seguin (91) - Alexander Radulov (47)
Denis Gurianov (34) - Roope Hintz (24) - Joe Pavelski (16)
Andrew Cogliano (11) - Radek Faksa (12) - Blake Comeau (15)
Mattias Janmark (13) - Jason Dickinson (18) - Corey Perry (10)
Esa Lindell (23) - John Klingberg (3)
Jamie Oleksiak (2) - Miro Heiskanen (4)
Andrej Sekera (5) - Roman Polak (45)
Ben Bishop (30)
Nashville Predators Lineup
Calle Jarnkrok (19) - Ryan Johansen (92) - Viktor Arvidsson (33)
Filip Forsberg (9) - Matt Duchene (95) - Mikael Granlund (64)
Rocco Grimaldi (23) - Nick Bonino (13) - Craig Smith (15)
Colin Blackwell (42) - Kyle Turris (8) - Austin Watson (51)
Roman Josi (59) - Ryan Ellis (4)
Mattias Ekholm (14) - Dante Fabbro (57)
Dan Hamhuis (5) - Yannick Weber (7)
Pekka Rinne (35)
Forwards. Both teams roll four lines, and with Nashville’s addition of Duchene, the top two lines for either team are dangerous. Nashville lost Colton Sissons to a lower body injury on Friday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Mattias Janmark took a dangerous knee-knee hit from Taylor Hall on Sunday, but he returned to finish out the game against the Arizona Coyotes. Otherwise, both groups are healthy. The Predators will look to establish offensive zone time, while the Stars have been more reliant on their transition game.
Defenders. The Predators drive their offensive game through their defense, especially their first pair. Throw in Ekholm, that their top three eat well over 20 minutes per game apiece. The top two pairs for the Stars balance high-skilled puck movers in Klingberg and Heiskanen with size and a defensive emphasis. Both teams feature third pairs that could be a liability, although Dan Hamhuis still looks to be drawing in for Nashville after taking a puck to the face.
Goaltenders. Bishop and Khudobin are a top end pair. Rinne has been sharing time with Juuse Saros, and neither has grabbed the 1A job.
Special Teams. Generally middle of the pack for both teams, without glaring weaknesses or strengths. A notable exception; the Stars penalty kill has spent much of the season as top five in the league, until a recent three game stretch against some top power play units.
Intangibles. The last few games showed the Stars using their physicality and speed to expose vulnerable areas on the Predators roster. Somebody on Nashville needs to step up if they plan to change the narrative.
Keys to the Game
Focus and Process early. With all of the buildup and distractions leading up to the game, players are going to be border-edge over-hyped. There will be hockey hits to get the blood flowing. The team that can channel that energy within their team systems during the first ten minutes of the game will have a distinct advantage.
Defensive activation vs. Zone Exits. The Predators drive much of their offense through activated defenders. The Stars can have issues with clean zone exits, and can fall into an over reliance on Hail Mary stretch passes. You’ll know who is controlling game flow by watching whether Nashville can establish a cycle game, extending offensive zone time or whether the Stars are able to skate the puck out of their defensive zone as a team, with possession.
Star players being stars. This is a big stage and the whole NHL is watching. The big time players will be looking to be themselves, only more so. Some of the players are known quantities. Jamie Benn will run a pile and then try to slip a backhand five hole. Tyler Seguin may even set up at the Ovechkin spot on the power play. Miro Heiskanen and, to a degree, John Klingberg will delight and amaze a world that heretofore never knew they existed.
Unexpected heroes. For Dallas, the straw that stirs the drink - Alexander Radulov. For Nashville, a diminutive speedster (the kind that always give Dallas nightmares) - Rocco Grimaldi.