Tuesday night, fourth-line center Scott Nichol returned from a broken thumb, and played well for 10:21, including some solid penalty kill work. Tonight, power forward Scott Hartnell comes back against St. Louis. If he can pick up where he left off, he brings an extra dimension to the Nashville attack - playing the Tomas Holmstrom/Ryan Smyth style of going to the net, screening the goaltender and going for tips and rebounds. The Predators offensive success this year has been built on the depth and diversity of talent up front, and Hartnell's grit has been noticeably absent of late.
Steve Sullivan, the team's most dynamic scorer, has suffered from lingering back issues for weeks, and even if he returns to action for the playoffs, will likely need time to get up to speed. Last year he struggled with a strained groin heading into the postseason, and was largely ineffective in a first-round loss to San Jose, going scoreless in five games. The best that can be hoped for here is that the team performs well around him and gets through the first round, allowing him time to get back in game shape and contribute later on.
Martin Erat, who earlier in the season patrolled the right wing for David Legwand and Paul Kariya on the Predators' most productive line, isn't expected back before the playoffs start. His ability to maintain puck possession in the offensive zone is a difference-maker, but coming off a strained knee, how strong will his skating be out there?
The good news to develop lately has been the play of trade acquisition Peter Forsberg, who, when healthy, has been as good as advertised, reigniting rookie winger Alexander Radulov's scoring touch. Before January 1st, Radulov potted 12 goals and had the Music City buzzing, but for the next two months he couldn't buy a goal. Now playing alongside Forsberg and Vernon Fiddler, Radulov is generating dangerous chances each and every night, and has a chance to hit the 20-goal mark in his rookie season, which would be a great accomplishment and bolster his confidence leading into his first playoff run.
In goal, there's been plenty of noise on the Predators message boards indicating a lack of confidence in Tomas Vokoun since he came back from an injury earlier this year, and plenty of voices wanting Chris Mason to carry the bulk of the work. In the end, however, coach Barry Trotz gets to choose between the guy who's #2 in the Save Percentage rankings, or the guy who's #6. That's not a bad place to be, and I'm guessing he goes with Vokoun to start Game One.
So while the goaltending and defense corps appear to be in good shape, there are a number of questions to address on the forward lines with only a week remaining before the playoffs begin. Where does Hartnell best fit in at this time? Where will Erat play once he returns? What will the power play lineups look like, especially since Forsberg hasn't had much opportunity to skate with these injured players? When will Sully take the ice? Will Keith Urban & Nicole Kidman (scroll down) jump on the Predators' playoff bandwagon? They better climb aboard quick, because it's getting ready to roll...