Thursday, March 22, 2012

Predators and Penguins: Is this a Cup Final Preview?

Tonight's contest between the Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins has suddenly taken on a circus-type atmosphere and has all the eyes in the hockey world focused on Consol Energy Center for tonight's 6 p.m. CDT puck drop on national TV (NHL Network).

The Penguins are the NHL hottest team, going 12-0-1 since February 11. The team that was already clicking on all cylinders was bolstered by the return of Sidney Crosby last week. In four games, Crosby has had nine assists, including four in Tuesday's 8-4 win over Winnipeg.

The Pens also feature the current front-runner in this year's Hart Trophy race, Evgeni Malkin who has carried the team in Crosby's absence, scoring 43 goals and adding 50 assists. James Neal has also blossomed into a point per game star in Pittsburgh in his first full season there, scoring 35 goals and picking up 37 assists.

The Predators are hoping to see the season debut of Alexander Radulov who has returned from being the best player in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League to complete the final year of his entry level contract and hopes to lead the Preds deep into the playoffs.

Nashville's team has been built for a deep playoff run and looks to be as good as any NHL team on paper. The Predators feature the NHL's best defensive pairing in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. They have also pieced together offense by committee with eleven players in double digits in goals.

Trading deadline additions Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Paul Gaustad only made a strong team stronger and with the addition of Radulov, the team boasts five lines of forwards and four defensive pairings that are NHL ready. Battles for playing time are at a premium in Smashville.

Tonight's goalie match-up features the two net-minders that lead the NHL in wins with 39. Pekka Rinne (39-15-8, 2.41, .923) will face Marc-Andre Fleury (39-14-4, 2.26, .916) and both are potential Vezina finalists.

The game will feature a couple of reunions to add to the human interest side of the story-line. Ex-Pen Hal Gill will be facing the squad that has many of his teammates from his 2009 Stanley Cup winning effort. It will also be ex-Pred Steve Sullivan's first game against Nashville where he still maintains a residence.

Sullivan is a real professional so little will be voiced on his end, but he was one of the more bitter Predators, along with Jason Arnott, when Radulov bolted for the KHL four years ago so there will be little love lost in their reunion on the ice.

In summary, tonight's Preds-Pens contest will be one with broad appeal not only in North America, but world-wide with the addition of Radulov to the mix, and it could be a preview of things to come in late May and June.

More Later...

Buddy Oakes for PredsOntheGlass

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