Some back-to-backs are tougher than others. For the Nashville Predators, this one figured to be one of the toughest of the season - and that was before they lost two top six forwards and their third straight game Friday night in Detroit.
When Nashville welcomes the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to Bridgestone Arena Saturday night, it could do so without Ryan Johansen and Craig Smith. Each left its 5-3 loss to the Red Wings in the second period suffering from the flu and their status for Saturday night is uncertain.
While the Predators (1-3-0) lost Friday night, Pittsburgh (3-1-1) got to spend the evening in their hotel rooms in Nashville, fresh off a rousing 3-2 comeback win Thursday night against San Jose in an early rematch of last season's Cup finals.
And the Penguins needed a night of rest and relaxation in the worst way. They played most of the last two periods Thursday night with just four defensemen after the pairing of Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot both left with injuries.
Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin and Ian Cole shouldered a heavy load after that, but played efficiently to help Pittsburgh wipe out a 2-0 deficit.
"Any time you go down two defensemen that early in the game, it's tough. It puts a lot of pressure on those guys," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I thought they did a great job simplifying their game. The third period, I thought our forwards took some pressure off them, playing a north/south game and holding onto pucks."
Pouliot went on injured reserve Friday, joining a growing list of teammates in the infirmary. Sidney Crosby (concussion) is nowhere near returning to game action and top defenseman Kris Letang (upper-body injury) also sat out Thursday after being injured in Montreal Tuesday night.
While Pittsburgh is thriving despite being shorthanded, the Predators are stumbling as their depth is undergoing an early test. The illnesses of Johansen and Smith, coupled with last weekend's upper-body injuries to depth defenseman Anthony Bitetto and fourth-line forward Miikka Salomaki that landed both on injured reserve, could lead to call-ups from AHL affiliate Milwaukee for this game.
Regardless of who plays and who sits, Nashville needs a more detailed performance to change its fortunes. The Predators want to forecheck aggressively and maintain possession, but have allowed a whopping 80 shots on net this week, and have stayed in games only because of good work by goalie Pekka Rinne and their power play.
"I thought we played hard, especially with a short bench," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said Friday night. "We just shot ourselves in the foot too many times. You can't make that many mistakes when you're trying to come from behind."
Breakdowns in discipline harmed the Predators in Detroit, as they took eight minors, enabling the Red Wings to net two man-advantage markers. Had Rinne not saved 38 of 42 shots, the final margin could have been worse.
All three Nashville goals in Detroit came on the power play, continuing an early trend. The Predators are 8-for-15 with the man advantage through four games and has potted just two even strength tallies.