NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When the
Nashville Predators took the ice for their home opener on Tuesday, they did so
with 11 of the same players who helped them to advance to the second round of
the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2012.
Yet to show how much of
a toll last season took on the team’s collective psyche – the Predators
finished with the NHL’s fourth-worst record – Nashville coach Barry Trotz said
after a home-opening 3-2 win over the Minnesota Wild that night represented a
step in “learning to win again.”
It didn’t help that
Nashville lost this season’s first two games on the road, failing to get to
overtime and earn a point in either one. That would not exactly translate into
confidence for the Predators that they have turned things around.
After the team’s morning
skate, Trotz said that last season the Predators’ “identity got crushed” and
that the team that Nashville iced at the end of the season – injuries ravaged
the lineup and necessitated numerous call-ups from Milwaukee of the American
Hockey League – was “quite over their head.”
“You’ve got to have a
little success to have that confidence,” Trotz said following that first win on
Tuesday. “Sometimes when you don’t have a lot of success in a while, you tend
to play cautious and when you have that confidence you go for it. That was
probably Step 1.”
Trotz is the NHL’s
longest-tenured coach with the same team, having been around since the
Predators entered the league in 1998, so he tends to know when he has a good
team and when he doesn’t. He said after the team’s morning skate on Tuesday
that he liked this group.
It might not have shown
in a 4-2 loss at St. Louis last Thursday or in the 3-1 loss at Colorado the
next day. The Predators failed to score a power play goal, going 0-for-7 in the
first two games, while allowing the Blues to go 2-for-4 on the power play.
(Nashville killed all of their penalties against the Avs, who were 0-for-5 with
the man advantage.)
The St. Louis game, in
particular, carried a worrisome look, as goalie Pekka Rinne, a finalist for the
Vezina Trophy (best goalie) in 2011 and ’12, got pulled after allowing three
goals on six shots in the first 10 minutes. General manager David Poile said
last week at the outset of the season that early on the team would be a work in
progress and Rinne did not play much during the preseason, as he was coming off
serious offseason hip surgery, which entailed a four-month rehab.
Predators have encountered some unwelcome injuries early on. Their biggest
free-agent signing, wing Viktor Stalberg, has a shoulder injury and remains a
few weeks away from returning. On Friday, No. 2 defenseman Roman Josi suffered
a concussion and missed the home opener. Highly touted rookie forward Filip
Forsberg also missed the first two games.
“I really like this
group,” he said on Tuesday morning. “We’re three games into it but it’s one of
the groups I could really see jelling as we go along here. The types of people
we brought in and the fits and some of the young guys we’ve been able to
acquire through the draft and trades, it’s a really good mix. Now we have to
come together as a mix.”
On Tuesday, that process
of coming together gave reason for optimism beyond the coach’s office. The
Predators broke through for two power-plays goals, converting a 5-on-3 in the
form of Forsberg’s first NHL goal, and then the ensuing 5-on-4. Eric Nystrom,
one of those offseason signings designed to help Nashville reestablish its
identity, scored on a penalty shot.
From there, the
Predators killed penalties, got strong goaltending from Rinne and rode out a
closely fought victory much in the way they have in their more successful
seasons. The promising signs were there in terms of Forsberg and rookie
defenseman Seth Jones, the league’s fourth overall pick in 2013 who may quickly
cause the teams that passed on him to regret that decision, picking up points.
The preternaturally poised Jones posted an even rating in a team-high 25:02.
Trotz was equally
encouraged by the team toughness the Predators showed. Rich Clune earned a fighting
major and then after a scrum erupted when he received a penalty for goalie
interference – he put a clean hit on Wild goalie Josh Harding when Harding
ventured out of the crease – a number of teammates came to his rescue when the
Wild’s Clayton Stoner took exception.
“We didn’t have much
bite at all last year,” Trotz lamented in the morning. “That was the most
infuriating thing for me. We’re playing with a little more bite and a little
more passion and if we can stay healthy I think this group can really come
On Thursday, Toronto,
off to a 3-1, intimidating start, visits Nashville.
“We’re going to have to
come out Thursday and be better than we were tonight and hopefully on Saturday
we can build a few things,” Trotz said. “I think you’re finding out that we’ve
got lots of very quality pieces. That when they come together and we get the
confidence and we got our special teams and our penalty kill, we have a lot of
different ways we can beat you.”