All-Star 'snubs' to square off in Vancouver
If the NHL were to name the All-Star reserves today (and not back on Jan. 11), there is a good chance that at least one (maybe both) of the goaltenders facing off in Vancouver tonight would be headed to Raleigh. Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo have been integral parts to their respective teams this year, especially of late.
Aside from the matchup in the crease, tonight’s tilt will be a good test for both sides before heading into All-Star Weekend.
Rinne has simply been lights-out for the Preds ever since returning from a knee injury during the holidays. In his last 11 outings, Rinne won nine of those games and boasts a 1.62 goals-against average, along with a gaudy .947 save percentage.
Since Dec. 23 – the date he returned from injury – the 6’5” Finn has lowered his goals-against from 2.37 to 2.11 (second in the NHL) and is playing his way into the Vezina Trophy conversation. 'Peks' has been a catalyst for the Preds, making big save after big save. You can make a solid argument that he is playing the best hockey of his career.
Rinne isn’t the only reason why the Preds are surging in the rugged Western Conference, though. Captain Shea Weber is also playing his best hockey of the season, compiling 14 of his 29 points in the last 14 games. In that span, the team has gone 11-3. Sergei Kostitsyn, Patric Hornqvist, David Legwand and Ryan Suter have also been key contributors during this hot stretch.
This game will be a good measuring-stick game for the Preds, currently fourth in the conference, as they head into the All-Star break. The Canucks are the ‘Class of the West’ right now, coming off an impressive 7-1 win over Pacific-leading Dallas.
Speaking of the Canucks… Alain Vigneault’s bunch is looking down on the rest of the West with 69 points. Now, Luongo may have a bit less to do with Vancouver’s success than Rinne with Nashville’s, but the often-scrutinized goaltender has stepped up in a big way for Vigneault and company after a rocky start to the season.
Luongo is playing like the goalie Vancouver needs him to be if they wish to fend off the likes of Detroit and Dallas as this season goes on. The Quebec native has not lost in regulation since Dec. 5, and carries a 15-1-5 record and 1.90 goals-against since Nov. 24.
Overall, with 22 wins and a 2.31 goals-against, you have to think Luongo has thrown his hat into the ring for the Vezina as well.
Vancouver’s All-Star representatives have also been a big reason for the Canucks’ surge to the top. Ryan Kesler, known in past years as an agitator and secondary producer, has a career-high 27 goals, along with 47 points and a +19 rating.
The Sedin twins keep doing their thing. Daniel Sedin has 63 points, Henrik 61; and the two have combined for 76 points since Nov. 24. Since that date, the team is 20-3-6.
Records – NSH (27-16-6, 60 pts) … VAN (30-10-9, 69 pts)
Power Play – NSH (24/169, 14.2%, 27th) … VAN (47/197, 23.9%, 3rd)
Penalty Kill – NSH (146/172, 84.9%, 5th) … VAN (151/180, 83.9%, 8th)
Keys to the Game:
Nashville… Solid penalty kill
The usually-stout PK came up short against Calgary, surrendering a pair of power play goals. They have got to be better against a dangerous man advantage unit, which is ranked third in the league.
Vancouver… Secondary scoring
Weber and Suter may be able to contain the Sedins, but if the Mason Raymonds and Mikael Samuelssons of the world get going, it could be tough for Nashville to get two points.
Nashville… J.P. Dumont (neck, probable), Steve Sullivan (lower body, out), Matthew Lombardi (concussion, out), Cal O’Reilly (leg, out), Francis Bouillon (upper body, out), Marek Svatos (knee, out)
Vancouver… Andrew Alberts and Alexandre Bolduc (shoulder, out), Sami Salo (Achilles, out), Aaron Rome (knee, out)
This will be the first meeting of the season between these two teams. They have split their 10 meetings in Vancouver since the lockout. An interesting subplot in this game is that Shane O’Brien makes his return to Vancouver; I’m sure he will receive a warm welcome!
Barry Trotz’s gang has been successful on their prolonged western trip thus far, but look a bit road weary right now. They need a fast start, although the Canucks like to jump on teams in the first period. Luongo and company got off the schnide on Monday and will look to finish strong before the break. I expect it to be a tight game with the Canucks coming out on top.
Prediction: Canucks 3, Predators 2
Photos credit: Getty Images
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