November in Review
After picking up steam in October, the Nashville Predators kept up the pace in November to go 9-2-2 for the month. At the time of this writing, Nashville sits ahead of Detroit for the Central Division lead, something rare since the Preds often find themselves scratching their way to the top where the Red Wings are typically perched.
During November, Nashville set a team record for consecutive road wins, winning seven straight away from home ice. “Maybe we should just keep playing on the road,” suggested defenseman Shea Weber. Maybe they should. Nashville is 11-4-0 this season while playing in visitor buildings, the second-best road record in the league behind Buffalo. However, the Gaylord Entertainment Center hasn’t been such a bad place to play either, as Nashville collected points in every November home game, going 4-0-2.
With a 17-5-3 overall record, Nashville is one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now. Aside from the Central Division lead, their 37 points puts them in fourth place overall behind Atlanta, Buffalo, and Anaheim. But what’s most remarkable is that Nashville’s success is a product of a true team effort. With few superstars and not a single player cracking the NHL’s top 20 in scoring, Nashville is one of only six NHL teams featuring 11 or more skaters with double-digit scoring totals. Another reason for their success is that the Predators gave taken far fewer penalties and scored many more even-strength goals than this point last season. Nashville’s balance and depth on both sides of the puck should carry them far this season.
“We’re just on a bit of a high right now,” defenseman Ryan Suter said earlier in the month. “We’re trying to ride it as long as we can. We’re playing well on the road and we’re winning at home, so we’re right where we want to be.”
Thorns in the side
Despite Nashville’s winning ways this season, there’s been a few teams who’ve managed to give the Predators problems. The first is the Chicago Blackhawks, who are 3-0 against Nashville to date and account for three of Nashville’s five regulation losses. Chicago and Nashville faced off in the season opener to combine for the highest-scoring contest of the season, an 8-6 Nashville loss. In a less offensive game two nights later, the Blackhawks prevailed in Chicago, 3-1. And on Dec. 2, Chicago came from behind in the third period to force a 4-3 overtime win, thanks to Jeffrey Hamilton’s hat trick. None of this would be unexpected if Chicago was a Central Division power. But before their last game, Nashville enjoyed a 16-point cushion over Chicago. The loss also marked a familiar problem the Preds have faced this season when it comes to holding third-period leads.
“Obviously, not being able to hold on late in the game is kind of our Achilles’ heel,” forward Steve Sullivan said. “We’ve got to learn how to protect the lead,” Kimmo Timonen added. “With one minute to go, you can’t give up chances.”
The other thorn in Nashville’s side is Minnesota, who seems to prefer beating Nashville with more offense than defense. In one of the more entertaining games this season, the Predators 7-6 overtime loss on Nov. 16 was similar to the 6-5 defeat in the second game of the season. But this time the Predators and Wild combined for 90 shots on goal, a Nashville record against any opponent. In their three contests thus far, both teams have combined for 31 goals.
“I don’t know what it is with them,” goalie Chris Mason said. “They just don’t quit. If you give them an opportunity they are pretty deadly.”
Injury bug bites again
Just when he was heating up, an injury has cooled the momentum of center Jason Arnott. After going scoreless in seven straight games, Arnott had a two-goal game against Columbus on Nov. 18, giving him 16 points in 19 games. But on Nov. 20 against the Blue Jackets, Arnott tore his meniscus cartilage in his knee, sidelining him for three to six weeks. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery days later, and is expected to return by the new year. At the time of the injury, the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder was fourth on the team in scoring (7 goals, 9 assists). He is currently eighth.
The Predators were missing some size with Arnott’s absence, but they lost another huge player when starting goaltender Tomas Vokoun was sidelined in the third period against Vancouver on Nov. 23. Vokoun tore a ligament in his left thumb when he went down to make a save with his stick.
“I just put my stick down and kind of just jammed my thumb underneath my stick and pulled it against the ice,” Vokoun explained. “I felt pain in it and from that moment on it was pretty much disabled.”
Like Arnott, Vokoun is likely to return around the end of December. However, it’s possible that Vokoun may return earlier with the support of a light cast on his thumb.
Proven backup Chris Mason has taken the reigns from Vokoun, something he did ably in last season’s playoffs when Vokoun was out with a rare blood condition.
“In the bigger picture this is a huge opportunity for Chris Mason,” General Manager David Poile said. “I think if you were to talk to our players or our coaches, I don’t think that they feel this is going to be a problem for our hockey club.”
Backing up Mason is goaltender Mike Leighton, who Nashville acquired on waivers from Anaheim. The 6-foot-3, 186-pound native of Petrolia, Ontario had a stint at Chicago from 2002-04, accumulating 42 games of NHL experience. This season he’s played 16 games with the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League, earning an 8-6-1 record with a 2.31 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.
Radulov on a roll
Hot rookie Alexander Radulov is still learning hockey on the NHL level, but he’s already becoming acquainted with another game: musical chairs. After scoring his first goal in his second NHL game on Oct. 21, Radulov was reassigned to Nashville’s farm team on Nov. 7 when all of Nashville’s other forwards were healthy. Then on Nov. 21, Radulov was recalled again from the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals for assistance when center Josef Vasicek was stricken with back spasms against Columbus.
In the six games he’s played since returning on Nov. 22, the Rad Russian set a team record for scoring a goal in each of Nashville’s four wins—three proving to be game winners. But The 6-1, 188-pound forward would prefer to focus on other things.
“I don’t think about it,” he said. “If I think about it, it’s going to stop. It’s just about team strength.”
What will get other teams thinking though is Radulov’s shooting percentage. His six goals have come on 13 shots—giving him an unreal 46% sharpshooting accuracy.
“Alex is tremendous at making things happen,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “There are certain players that throw pucks at the net and hope it goes in, he is one that demands it goes in. Scoring a goal is an adrenaline high for him, and he is addicted to scoring goals.”
The Nashville Predators have a reputation for their hard work on the ice, but they can now add off-ice work to their resumé. On Nov. 7, Predators players performed a variety of community service activities as part of Predators Community Day. Among the appearances were defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter greeting passengers at the Nashville airport and helping them with their baggage. In an ironic assignment, Chris Mason and Greg Zanon, sporting Mr. Clean-like domes, offered their services at Supercuts near Vanderbilt University. Perhaps not surprisingly, however, there were few takers. And Jordin Tootoo took orders behind the counter at Hardee’s.
“It’s something I know I can do in the future now if anything ever goes wrong here,” he said with a smile.
While Predators Community Day isn’t the only time during the year when players give back to the fans, Tuesday’s event was the first time that almost every team member was involved in different duties at the same time.
“Our fans are the backbone of our success,” Tootoo said. “They are like our seventh man.”