Predators Perspective

By Ken Devine


December in Review

For the second straight month, the Nashville Predators held the lead in the Central Division race by a slim margin over the Detroit Red Wings. As of Jan. 1, the Predators’ 55 points put them at second place in the Western Conference (behind Anaheim) and third place in the entire NHL (also behind Buffalo).

But the Predators have a lot of work to do if they want to pose a true playoff threat in the coming months. While Nashville enjoyed quality wins over Ottawa and Boston in December, they also lost all of their marquee matchups against the likes of Buffalo, Anaheim, and San Jose (with a possibility of seeing first-round action against the latter two). In addition to losing on the road to San Jose and Anaheim, the Preds also dropped a 4-1 decision in Dallas to the Stars, another team that usually sees action in the postseason.

“If we want a chance to do well in the playoffs, we have to beat good teams in their buildings,” goalie Chris Mason said after the loss.

Mason is right. While the Predators have gotten their season off to a strong start, they haven’t been able to hang with the few teams above them in the standings who are dominating the NHL. And with a schedule that permits few contests against the Eastern Conference, Nashville has to take advantage of every litmus test they get to elevate their game to the next level.

Goalie controversy brewing

Backup? What backup?

With each win that Chris Mason earns in place of injured starter Tomas Vokoun, Preds fans are growing increasingly curious with how Nashville will handle its goaltending situation in the coming weeks. It’s a problem that most teams would like to have.

 

Boston Bruins forward Shean Donovan (22) tries in vain to redirect a shot against the Predators Chris Mason during their Dec. 30 contest at the Gaylord Entertainment Center. Mason had 38 saves earning his fourth shutout of the season.

Mason, who was named the NHL’s second star for his efforts during the week of Dec. 11, has posted a 15-7-2 record with four shutouts and 19 straight starts in net as of Jan 1, setting a new franchise record. Moreover, Mason’s .927 save percentage is second-best in the NHL and his 2.35 goals-against average gives him the seventh-best figure in the league.

Vokoun, on the other hand, was producing similar numbers before tearing a ligament in his left thumb on Nov. 23. After not practicing for five weeks, the All-Star netminder is scheduled to return to the lineup around the second week of January.

Because both Predators goaltenders are proven winners, coach Barry Trotz has indicated that he’ll probably use both Mason and Vokoun as part of a rare goaltending tandem.

“I think when Tomas gets back we’ll do a little bit of rotating for a while,” Trotz indicated. “We’ll see how that goes and try to keep both of them going if we can.”

It’s not just a tricky situation for Trotz. Mason and Vokoun are friends who enjoy seeing each other’s success, but they’ll both be fighting for the starting spot.

“I always want to play,” Mason said. “I just play when I’m told. That’s up to the coaches. But there’s no controversy between Tomas and me.”

Nashville Predators forward Scott Hartnell (17) beats Ottawa goalie Ray Emery on a perfect feed from Martin Erat (10). The Predators cruised to a 6-0 victory during their Dec. 14 contest at the Gaylord Entertainment Center.

 

Preds beat ‘Hawks, Can’t Solve Stars

After being pestered by the Chicago Blackhawks three times this season, Nashville finally earned their first victory over their Central Division opponent on Dec. 20. Chicago, who Nashville enjoyed a 6-2 record over last season, has been on the rise ever since Denis Savard took the coaching reins early in the season. Savard has refocused his team on creating more scoring chances with their speed, something that the Nashville Predators are familiar with.

“They’ve got a good hockey club out there and they’ve had our number all year,” center Paul Kariya said. “That’s a much better team than people give credit for,” left wing Steve Sullivan added. “They’ve got skill guys, character players, solid goaltending, and a defense that’s pretty mobile. We definitely think it’s a team that’s going to be in playoff contention by the end of the season.”

Meanwhile, Nashville is still waiting for the Stars to fall in Dallas. With a dismal 2-14 record in the American Airlines Center, Nashville has fewer wins against any other Western Conference opponent.

“They have a culture here,” coach Barry Trotz said. “They have a lot of veteran guys, and they are hard to rattle.”

Stars goaltender Marty Turco may have something to do with his team’s success against Nashville. Dallas has allowed an average of 1.6 goals a game in the last three seasons against the Preds.

“It (stinks) that every time we come here, we come up short,” goalie Chris Mason said. “I don’t know if it’s mental or psychological but it’s got to stop sooner or later.”

Nichol Pays Price

Just when things couldn’t get any uglier toward the end of a 7-2 spanking from the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 21, they did. After Sabres defenseman Jaroslav Spacek directed forward Scott Nichol into the Sabres goal, an infuriated Nichol sprung up and delivered a blindsided blow to Spacek that sidelined him for a few minutes. At the time, Nichol was given a minor penalty for instigating, a major for fighting, a 10-minute misconduct, and a game misconduct as the aggressor.

After the NHL reviewed the incident days later, Nichol was given a nine-game suspension without pay. Under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and based on his average annual salary, Nichol also had to forfeit over $25,000, which will go to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.
     
“The punch by Mr. Nichol was deliberate, from behind, and it occurred after the referee’s whistle had stopped play,” said Colin Campbell, the NHL’s Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations. Members of the Sabres organization, who saw the blow as a sucker punch, agreed with the assessment.

“There is no need for it in our game,” said Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff.

Nichol and others felt that the nine-game suspension was a bit much.

“I think it’s pretty harsh but I will live with it,” Nichol said. “I just thought it was total intent to injure. If he was over me to see how I was or say sorry it wouldn’t have happened, but he didn’t even care. He wasn’t even looking toward my direction. It upset me that way”

“I am not condoning my actions,” he continued. “It was the wrong thing to do, but in hockey sometimes actions like that happen.”
 
The nine-game suspension is the longest in Predators history and the longest the NHL has given out this season.

Radulov’s Residency

After scoring his ninth goal on Dec. 12 in just 17 games, the Nashville Predators told rookie phenom Alexander Radulov to check out of his hotel and begin the house-hunting process. While it’s not a definite sign that the Rad Russian will remain in Nashville this season, it’s a pretty good indicator.

“He’s earned the right to stay,” coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked for and he’s continued to improve.”

Because the 20-year-old right wing can move freely between Nashville and its AHL affiliate in Milwaukee without having to clear waivers, it’s still possible that Radulov could be reassigned for a third time this season.

It all depends on how healthy Nashville’s forwards are. Currently, left winger Scottie Upshall is the only one on injured reserve, but Jerred Smithson, Darcy Hordichuk, and Jordin Tootoo have consistently been healthy scratches.

“If we have a healthy 15 forwards, that’s something we’ll have to deal with,” General Manager David Poile said. “Somebody or someone would have to go. But when you look at our team, it seems like someone is always injured.”

Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz headed to 2007 NHL All-Star Game
With the Nashville Predators 8-3 victory on Jan. 5 over the Chicago Blackhawks, Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz has earned a trip to the 2007 NHL All-Star Game as the assistant coach of the Western Conference All-Stars. The head coach and assistant coach of the Western Conference All-Stars at the 2007 NHL All-Star Game are the head coaches of the two teams with the best points percentages in the Western Conference through games of Friday, Jan. 5, the halfway point of the 2006-07 regular season.  The Anaheim Ducks have the top points percentage in the conference (28-9-6 for 62 of a possible 86 points; .721), earning Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle the head coach assignment for the West, while Nashville has the second highest points percentage in the conference (27-11-3 for 57 of a possible 82 points; .695).

The 2007 NHL All-Star Game takes place on Wednesday, January 24 at the  American Airlines Center in Dallas.

Hitting the hundreds: The Dec. 30 game against Boston was Steve Sullivan’s 700th and Dan Hamhuis’ 200th NHL game, respectively. On Dec. 7, Scott Hartnell celebrated his 400th NHL game with a power-play goal and a 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings. And the Dec. 4 contest against Phoenix was head coach Barry Trotz’s 600th NHL game behind the bench, all with the Predators.

Winning Preds: The Preds are 11-0-0 this season when center Paul Kariya scores. Nashville is also 5-0-1 when defenseman Shea Weber lights the lamp.

Second-half saviors: Nashville is 8-1-1 in the second half of back-to-back games this season. The Predators are also 18-1-3 when leading after two periods.

Preds Talk

“It’ll be nice to...see our families for a change.”

—Chris Mason, on Nashville’s long road schedule

“There are no Washington Generals in this league. Every game is hard.”
—Scott Nichol, on the NHL’s level of competition

“Tonight we got taught how to play by the Buffalo Sabres.”
—Barry Trotz, after being dominated by Buffalo, 7-2

 “You’ve got to be a man to play this game.”
—Jordin Tootoo, responding to criticism about his physical play

 

 




 
Your No. 1 Source for Southern Hockey