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Sharks at Predators Preview: Hit a high note in Music City

The Sharks face off against the Predators before finally heading home to San Jose.

Nashville Predators goalie Juuse Saros (74) makes a save on San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture (39) on December 10, 2019, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The San Jose Sharks are facing off against the Nashville Predators for the final game of their first road trip, and by all accounts, it’s been a successful outing for the Sharks. They swept Eastern Canada, and while they lost 4-3 to the Boston Bruins on Saturday, it was a loss they could feel good about after almost completing the comeback late in the third period.

I’m not in the business of saying any NHL team is an easy win, but the Predators are a team the Sharks can (and should) win against. Nashville is sitting with just 4 points at the bottom of the Central Division and a 2-4-0 record compared to the Sharks’ 8 points and 4-1-0 record. The Predators last played on Sunday against the Minnesota Wild, winning 5-2, but the game showed some weaknesses in the Tennessee team that the Sharks can capitalize upon.

Against the Wild, the Predators laid just seven hits the entire game. Generally, hits are what happens when a team is playing away from the puck, so that’s low, but not necessarily cause for concern. The issue came when Minnesota out-shot (35-29) and out-attempted (62-49, unblocked shots and attempts in all situations) Nashville, partly by bodying them off the puck.

The Sharks are thriving in the physical aspect of their game (they had 25 hits in the loss to Boston, 23 in the win over Toronto) and can easily exhaust the Predators by using their body to separate opponents from the puck and squishing them into the boards every time they attempt to enter the zone.

Nashville is also inconsistent in scoring; over the six games they’ve played so far, the Predators totaled 18 total goals. In one fewer game, the Sharks have netted 19. The Predators’ top point scorers are Roman Josi, with 7 points (3 goals, 4 assists) and Ryan Johansen just below him, with 5 points (3 goals, 2 assists). The Sharks’ point leaders entering the game are Logan Couture and Timo Meier tied for first with 8 points, both with 3 goals and 5 assists. In second place is Erik Karlsson, with 6 points (2 goals, 4 assists).

Will the Sharks switch up the forward lines?

Head Coach Bob Boughner iced the same lines for the first few games of the season, debuting Alex Barabanov and Jonah Gadjovich in the Sharks’ last game against the Bruins. Barabanov, Gadjovich and defender Santeri Hatakka have been extras so far, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Boughner approaches the lines for the game against the Predators, after the only loss so far coming after a changed line up.

Boughner has mentioned that he wants to get Hatakka into the line up at some point, so it’s possible he makes his debut in this game, but unlikely, since Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jake Middleton are both playing surprisingly well, and despite Brent Burns and Mario Ferraro struggling in the last game, they wouldn’t be subbed out.

William Eklund sat out last game, but he’ll probably be in for the Predators, based on Boughner’s comments on wanting to give him a chance to learn from watching the rest of the team. It’s really just a question of who he’ll replace. Jonah Gadjovich earned himself another chance to stay in the line up with his place on the top-performing fourth line, racking up 3 hits and an assist (his first NHL point). Despite his own assist, Barabanov wasn’t as impressive, but Lane Pederson, who was scratched last game for Gadjovich, hasn’t been a stand-out, either.

It’s likely that Eklund and Gadjovich will be in, and Barabanov and Pederson will be scratched, and the rest of the lines will remain the same.

Who will the Sharks’ top performers be?

The top line for the Sharks (Meier, Couture and Jonthan Dahlen) has been buzzing from the start, but the fourth line was the driving force in the Sharks’ near-comeback against the Bruins. Jasper Weatherby had another standout game, with 3 shots on goal, 3 hits, 1 goal, 2 takeaways and a string of successful faceoffs. He’s been a dominant force in front of the net and in the corners, and was able to feed off of (and elevate) the players next to him, like Andrew Cogliano and Gadjovich.

There are a few players who I hope will be top performers in this game, only because it hasn’t been smooth sailing during the road trip. Tomas Hertl, and the rest of the second line (Eklund, Rudolfs Balcers and Barabanov last game) have been relatively quiet. On the flip side, Burns and Ferraro were too loud last game, and will hopefully be settled down against the Predators. Burns put up 3 shots on goal and blocked 4 shots, but also had 5 giveaways and a minor penalty. Following his lead, Ferraro also had a few shots and blocked shots, 4 hits, but also 2 giveaways and a penalty.

Who will be in net?

Ah, the biggest question of all. For Nashville, they’re a bit of a question mark. David Rittich was placed on the COVID-19 Protocol list on Oct. 16, and he’s still not cleared to return. That means it’s either Juuse Saros, who played the first five games of the season, or Connor Ingram, who played his first NHL game in their victory over the Wild two nights ago.

I imagine that Ingram may be in net again, having certainly earned it last game. Saros could use more of a break, and the Sharks have been underrated by their opponents so far. On the flip side, the Predators might be looking at the Sharks’ record, and will put Saros in net.

On the Sharks’ end of the ice, the word from Bob Boughner is that James Reimer will be in net. It has nothing to do with Reimer going in for Adin Hill on Sunday, saving a perfect 20 of 20 shots he faced in relief. The original plan for the road trip was that Hill would be in for Boston and Reimer would play Nashville. In the two games, Reimer has posted a .980 save percentage and 0.65 goals against average.

Bold prediction: If Ingram is in net, the Sharks will win it 5-2. If Saros is in net, the Sharks will win it 3-0. Burns and Ferraro will be back to their top form along with the top line, and both Erik Karlsson and William Eklund will get a point — a goal for EK65, and another assist for Eklund.