The Canadiens have the honor of being the opponent for the 1,000th regular season game in Nashville Predators franchise history on Saturday (and here’s a story on the Preds’ website about the occasion; here’s another). By comparison, the Habs will be playing Game 6,054, the most in the NHL, and they played another 150 in the NHA, but that’s for another day.
The Predators have been a remarkably stable organization for the past 14 years, with the same general manager, David Poile, and the same coach, Barry Trotz. They are also a team that — despite the presence of some familiar names to Canadiens fans like Sergei Kostitsyn and Francis Bouillon (pictured) — prides itself on building from within, developing much of their talent through good drafting and their minor league affiliates (and, as you probably know, former Canadiens assistant Kirk Muller is now the first-year head coach of their Milwaukee AHL club).
Trotz will, of course, coach his 1,000th game on Saturday. He is only the second coach in NHL history to spend each of the first 10 seasons as a team’s head coach joining the Rangers Lester Patrick (13 seasons, 1926-39) and he’s currently the second-longest tenured coach, trailing Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff, who is 80 games ahead of him.
Trotz’s teams are always well prepared and tough to play against. He may have lost some sandpaper guys in the offseason like Joel Ward, but the Predators are regularly greater than the sum or their parts. They are sixth in the West, 8-5-2, and coming off a five-game road trip where they got seven out of 10 points while contending with some injuries, including one to their leading scorer, centre David Legwand.
The Preds’ strength starts in their own end, and Poile has done an excellent job building from the goal out, with big Pekka Rinne between the pipes. Runner-up for the Vezina Trophy last season, he’s having a good beginning to this one, with eight wins (third best in the league), a 2.30 GAA and a .929 save percentage and 1.64 with a .953 in his last three games, all victories. He’s quite acrobatic for a 6-foot-5 man, has excellent reflexes and he never gives up on a shot. He’s still prone to giving up a bad goal now and then, but more often he’s making saves that make you wonder how he did it.
Rinne hasn’t lost since Poile and he agreed on a seven-year, $49 million contract extension on Nov. 3. Going back a bit further, he’s now won five of six and the one loss was in overtime. His last regulation loss came against on Oct. 25 to the Sharks.
Rinne is backed up by another big man, 6-foot-6 Anders Lindback and around Nashville, they’ve been called the Preds’ “thirteen feet of goaltending.”
The defence corps features one of the very best tandems in the NHL — Norris Trophy runner-up Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. They each play huge minutes in all situations (Suter averages a team high 27:43, Weber right behind him at 26:52). They also lead the team in plus-minus (Suter at plus-10, Weber at plus-7). The hard-shooting, hard-hitting Weber gets most of the attention but there are some, including members of the Predators organization, who confide they think Suter is even better as an all-around player.
There’s much debate over whether they will be able to keep both Weber and Suter long-term, and which they should try to keep if they can only keep one. But they are both here now and concern their foes every game.
Now 36 and three years removed from being a Hab, Bouillon returned last month from a concussion he suffered nine months earlier and since then Nashville has gotten nine of 11 points. He still plays like a human bowling ball, his 18 hits in only eight games already ranking fifth on the club.
Goal scoring is always the biggest challenge for the Predators, but the upper body injury to original Predator Legwand last week may have allowed Trots to cobble together a legitimately threatening young trio, inserting rookie Craig Smith in Legwand’s spot between Colin Wilson and Patric Hornqvist. The line scored three goals in Nashville’s 4-2 win over Anaheim on Wednesday, with Smith getting a pair and an assist on Wilson’s goal while Hornqvist assisted on all three. They’ll be the line who will likely draw the Habs best defenders.
In typically under-the-radar Predators’ fashion, Smith is now the leading rookie scorer in the NHL with seven goals and 14 points, a point ahead of the Oilers Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. A fourth round draft choice in 2009 out of the USHL junior league, he was a college star until he scored three goals and three assists in seven games for Team USA at the World Championships last spring and decided to turn pro.
As for AK46′s kid brother, Sergei hasn’t done too badly with three goals and five assists, considering he’s missed four games due to injury. While he was out, Smith skated in his place as a winger with Mike Fisher and Martin Erat.
Another Predator with Canadiens roots, Blake Geoffrion, is seeing fourth line and penalty killing duty. He’s yet to score this season after getting six goals in his first 20 NHL games last year. It looks as if Smith, his former teammate at the University of Wisconsin, has passed him on the Predators’ depth chart.
Nashville’s power play has not been overwhelming, just 9 for 55, 16.4 percent, good for 19th spot in the league. But, as you might expect, their penalty kill is strong, 58 for 66, 87.9 percent effective and seventh in the NHL.
Here’s how the Preds’ lineup might look for their 1,000th game:
Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, Patric Hornqvist.
Sergei Kostitsyn, Mike Fisher Martin Erat.
Jordin Tootoo, Jerred Smithson, Matt Halischuk
Niclas Bergfors, Blake Geoffrion, Brian McGrattan.
Ryan Suter, Shea Weber
Francis Bouillon, Kevin Klein
Jack Hillen, Jonathon Blum