NASHVILLE – Three hours before the abbreviated NHL season would start inside Bridgestone Arena, the Nashville Predators rolled out the gold carpet just outside of it.
It didn’t seem to matter to those who showed for the pregame plaza party on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon that a 113-day lockout had nearly taken their NHL season away. Nor did it seem to deter the sold-out and rowdy crowd of 17,113 fans who showed later that night to watch the Predators open the abbreviated 48-game season against Central Division rival Columbus.
And what is a Predators home opener without the traditional catfish being thrown onto the ice by a fan just before face-off? As a game official retrieved it from the ice, the hometown crowd howled.
Indeed, there was a sense of normalcy about the proceedings, although the Predators losing 3-2 in a shootout to the Blue Jackets put a dent in the feel-good script. After all, the Predators had beaten the Blue Jackets 19 times in their last 20 meetings at Bridgestone Arena.
But the notion that hockey has returned wasn’t lost on coach, players or fans.
“That was the best part,” said Predators coach Barry Trotz, whose team returns to action at home Monday against St. Louis before starting a seven-game road swing Tuesday at Minnesota.
“Hockey is back,” he added. “It is such a great sport. You can see the energy in the building. People were excited about us being back. And we’re excited about being back.”
Columbus forward Derick Brassard scored the game-winning goal in the sixth round of the shootout after the teams had played to a 2-2 tie through 60 minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime.
“Obviously, we would have liked to have gotten the two points (with a win),” Trotz said. “But when it goes to a shootout, anything can happen.”
Sort of like what transpired on the ice in a sloppy game that showed the rust and lack of preparation only one week of training camp provides.
“I haven’t been through a period like this where we haven’t played for so long,” said Predators captain Shea Weber, who had game highs with six shots and five hits. “We knew it was going to be some sort of rusty or sloppy or whatever you want to call it.
” … We are working on things in practice, but it’s not the same as a game. As the season goes on, we just have to get better period by period and game by game.”
Veteran forward Martin Erat scored Nashville’s first goal of the season just 39 seconds into the game. A blast from the point beat Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Assisting on the play were forward Sergei Kostitsyn and goaltender Pekka Rinne, who started the rush with a nifty outlet pass to Kostitsyn.
“You can practice. You can scrimmage. But you can’t simulate a game,” said Erat, who was named a Predators alternate captain earlier in the week. “The game is totally different. You just have to get used to it and get better with every game.”
The teams exchanged power-play goals late in the first period. Columbus tied the game at 16:08 when a one-timer by forward Nick Foligno from the point beat Rinne.
The Predators regained the lead at 2-1 less than two minutes later when defenseman Ryan Ellis slipped a point-blank shot past Bobrovsky, whose vision was obstructed by several Predators closing on the play. Kostitsyn got his second assist of the period on the goal.
The Blue Jackets tied the score at 2-2 at 7:55 in the second period on a power-play goal by center Artem Anisimov, who held off Predators center Paul Gaustad by keeping his body between the puck and defender before his one-handed shot beat Rinne top shelf.
The Columbus power play came about after Weber took exception to a mid-ice hit on teammate Craig Smith by Blue Jackets winger Jared Boll. Weber and Boll squared off, and each got five minutes for fighting, but a two-minute minor was added to Weber for roughing at 9:53.
“Our captain did the right thing going against Jared Boll, who ran over Smith,” Trotz said of Weber picking up his first fighting penalty during the regular season since 2009-10, although he did have one against Detroit last season in Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs.
“That’s what your captain does,” Trotz added. “He leads by example. It was not a great trade-off for us, but at the same time, he did what you want a great captain to do.”
Neither team could muster consistency in the offensive zones during the third period and overtime. The Predators outshot Columbus 34-28 for the game.
“There are going to be times when we look like we know what we are doing and times we look like we don’t know what we are doing,” Trotz said. “We had a little bit of sloppiness. We had a little bit of rustiness. And we had way too many turnovers.”
Even with the loss, Predators fans went home knowing there would be hockey for another season, albeit abbreviated with only 24 home games. Nashville has been to the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons, including winning consecutive series to open the playoffs the last two years.
And last season, the Predators sold out a franchise-best 25 regular-season home games and all five of their playoff games at Bridgestone Arena.
“It’s great to have hockey back,” said Dennis Roth, a Predators season-ticket holder since the team began playing in Nashville as an expansion franchise in 1998. “It was hard and disappointing not having hockey.
“But I knew I would be back once the lockout was finally over.”
It was a lockout, Roth figures, that should have been avoided in the first place.
“It didn’t need to be,” he said. “I blame both sides, commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners and (NHLPA executive director) Donald Fehr and the players. It seems they finally got done what they could have done from the beginning.”