Ryan Ellis (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Ellis sees limited ice time in return to lineup

By Jim Diamond

After missing 21 games with a lower-body injury, Ryan Ellis returned to the lineup for the Nashville Predators Thursday night in their home game against the Minnesota Wild. Ellis sustained his injury Jan. 8 against Dallas, and his rehab has been a long, slow process.

He has been skating with the team recently and at Thursday’s morning skate proclaimed that he was ready to see game action. In the 4-2 loss to the Wild, Ellis saw just 11:29 of ice time, his lowest total of the season save for the game in which he was injured.

“It was a rough game,” Ellis said. “It was fast-paced. Not playing for seven weeks, obviously it is tough to get back into it, but it’s kind of to be expected.”

With the team’s game-heavy schedule in the month of February, the Predators have not had a lot of practice time where Ellis could get closer to replicating game speed, so it will have to come through game action.

“There’s nothing like a game to prepare yourself,” Ellis said. “You can skate. You can ride the bike as much as you want, but you kind of have to play games to get in that mode.”

Neither Ellis nor Cody Franson saw the ice after the 11:06 mark of the third period. Asked about the pair spending the last half of the third on the bench, Predators head coach Peter Laviolette did not shine a whole lot of light on the situation.

“We were just moving the other four a little bit,” Laviolette said. “We were in a position where we were trying to push. It was just the way the bench rolled I think at the end.”

Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Seth Jones, and Mattias Ekholm all played north of 20 minutes in the game, led by Josi’s 27:36.

Homeboys on the Blue Line

Long known for their prowess for drafting and developing defenseman, Ellis’ re-insertion into the lineup meant that all six Nashville blueliners in Thursday’s game were Predator draftees.

Add in the fact that Ryan Suter, the guy who the Bridgestone faithful booed each time he touched the puck per usual, was also a Predators draftee, and seven of the 12 defensemen in the game fit that definition.

As unusual as it is for a team to have all six of its defensemen homegrown, this was not the first time the Predators dressed a defense corps comprised entirely of players who had their name called by David Poile or a member of his front office when they were drafted. On January 9, 2010, Weber and Franson were joined by Suter, Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Klein, and Alex Sulzer. In Sunday’s game in Buffalo, Weber, Josi, Jones, Ekholm, Franson, and Anthony Bitetto made up the D corps. 

Anthony Bitetto (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Anthony Bitetto caps an arduous day of travel with a victory

By Jim Diamond

More than a day’s worth of work went into trying to get Anthony Bitetto to Nashville for Tuesday night’s game against the visiting San Jose Sharks, and all that work finally came to fruition, albeit just a little late.

Bitetto was needed back in Nashville for the Predators’ tilt against the Sharks because Anton Volchenkov was unable to go and newly acquired defenseman Cody Franson still does not have the green light to suit up for the Predators due to immigration issues.

Now there are no direct flights between Milwaukee and Nashville, and with weather systems wreaking havoc all over North America, including the one that dumped ice on Middle Tennessee Monday, getting between the two cities was not exactly easy.

After a Monday afternoon flight cancellation, he arrived at the airport at 5:30 Tuesday morning ready to fly to Nashville.

“I had a flight at 6:15 yesterday, cancelled, and then 7:00 am, cancelled,” he said. “I had a flight at 11:15 just delayed forever. It was ridiculous. Sometimes you have to go through adversity like that. It was a long day.”

With a 7:00 pm start time to Nashville’s game, there was little margin for any further delays. He said that Tuesday was the first time he ever had to eat his pregame meal in an airport.

Bitetto landed in Nashville in time to make it to Bridgestone Arena, but his gear, not so much.

“I made the flight and I got to baggage claim, and right now it’s probably 5:15 and the meeting is about to happen and I’m stressing out not sure what’s going on,” he said.

Eventually, the bag was retrieved.

As the team’s warmup skate began, Bitetto was not on the ice. In fact, forward Viktor Stalberg was taking line rushes as Seth Jones’ defensive partner. Bitetto was present on the roster card for the game, but when it began, he was not on the bench.

“I guess warmups aren’t that important,” Bitetto said with a laugh.

As the game neared its first media timeout, Bitetto appeared and took his seat on the bench. That media timeout came at 6:26, and while the ice crew did their flying V cleaning, Bitetto took a couple of spins to loosen up his legs. 32 seconds later, he received his first shift of the game.

“I had to get out there and do a couple of hot laps,” he said. “I think my first shift I had a 2-on-1 and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m back.’ I’m glad we got the win. That’s the most important thing about it.”

Predators head coach Peter Laviolette said that getting Bitetto into Nashville was quite the challenge, and that if needed, Stalberg would have gone into the lineup.

“Well, we had one extra player here,” Laviolette said. “There’s nothing really you can do about it. We’ve been trying for what seemed like 30 hours to get him here. The weather’s got everybody on their heels right now, so the fact that he made it here is great. Once he was in the air, we knew he would be here. We knew his equipment would get here at some point and he would join us in the game.”

Bitetto finished with 13:29 of ice time, not too bad for a guy who had been travelling all day, missed warmups, and even the start of the game.

Seth Jones (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Jones, Josi anchor 5-on-3 kill in Predators win

By Jim Diamond

At 8:33 of the third period of Thursday night’s game against the visiting Winnipeg Jets, Predators defenseman Victor Bartley was whistled for an interference minor. 29 seconds later, at 9:02, fellow blueliner Shea Weber was sent off for cross-checking, giving the Jets a lengthy two-man advantage of 1:31.

The old adage is that a goaltender is a team’s best penalty killer, but the effort displayed by the two defensemen and two forwards used on that PK was more than impressive in support of Pekka Rinne.

It is fairly customary for teams down two players to use a one forward and two defensemen formation, and that is exactly what Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette did in sending out Mike Fisher up front and Seth Jones and Roman Josi on defense.

After one shot on goal and two more attempts blocked, Gaustad was able to get off in favor of Mike Fisher at 9:48, but Jones and Josi were unable to change. Fisher did his part in the penalty kill, recording three consecutive blocked shots on Winnipeg’s hulking defenseman Dustin Byfuglien in the span of 21 seconds.

“That was a huge kill,” Jones said. “Just try to get in some shot lanes and Mike, and Goose, and Jos did a great job as well getting in shot lanes. We didn’t give them really anything, and Pekks made a huge save there in the crease as well.”

Josi, who started his shift after the Bartley penalty at 8:33, came off at 10:35 after Rinne stopped and covered a shot from Andrew Ladd. The shift of 2:02 was just the third-longest of the night for Josi, who also clocked shifts of 3:04 and 2:13 in the game en route to a game-high 28:00 of ice time.

“Fish had a couple of great blocks and we just tried to take the passing lanes away and obviously Pekks in net made a couple of huge saves,” Josi said. “You obviously try to talk a little bit, but it happens pretty fast on the 5-on-3, so you just try to read off each other, try to read off the forward too. Pekks has the shots and we just try to take the passing lanes away.”

Jones’ shift finally ended at 11:06, a lengthy 2:06 from start to finish. With injuries to Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm, Jones has inherited much more ice time lately.

“He’s getting an opportunity now with the injuries,” Laviolette said. “He’s got one of those endless oxygen tanks that seems like he could stay out there for two minutes, he could stay out there for a long time, one of those guys that can take on a lot of minutes.

“He’s played great, but now in an expanded role, you really get to see who he is. I’m sure he’s loving it.”

Longs shifts are one thing but penalty-killing shifts that exceed two minutes are exhausting. The young duo of Josi and Jones battled through their long shifts and helped preserve Nashville’s fourth consecutive win.

Anthony Bitetto (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Anthony Bitetto won both a fight and respect in the locker room Tuesday

By Jim Diamond

Hockey’s anti-fighting crowd may not have liked what Nashville Predators rookie defenseman Anthony Bitetto did at 4:13 of the second period of Tuesday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but Bitteto’s hockey-playing teammates loved it.

Inside Nashville’s blue line, Tampa Bay’s Brett Connolly was working over Craig Smith enough to draw a delayed holding penalty. As Connolly continued while lying on top of Smith, Bitetto skated over and engaged Connolly.

Both men dropped their gloves and Bitetto won the bout in a more than decisive fashion.

“It is part of the game, and it’s something that at times, it’s needed,” Bitetto said. “It was a situation where a skilled guy like Smitty was getting hit or whatever you want to call it. Sometimes the gloves come off and that’s how it goes.”

Bitetto was given an extra minor for unsportsmanlike conduct on the play, negating the power play that they were scheduled to have.

The unsportsmanlike penalty was the officials’ way of saying that Bitetto instigated the fight, but they did not want to be overly punitive of the Island Park, NY native since an instigating minor also carries with it an automatic 10-minute misconduct. The referees saw Connolly on top of Smith and understood that Bitetto was sticking up for a teammate, so they just evened things up penalty wise, and good for them.

“I thought his fight was terrific, well timed,” Predators head coach Peter Laviolette said. “He jumped in there for his teammate.”

After his seven minutes of penalty minutes were served, Bitetto retuned to the Nashville bench to his teammates standing and banging their sticks on the boards in approval.

“It’s always cool getting that ‘hoo-ha,’ and whatever,” Bitetto said.

Asked if Bitetto earned some respect in the locker room for doing what he did, fellow defenseman Seth Jones didn’t hesitate.

“Hundred percent, hundred percent,” he said. “Guys obviously want to play with someone that’s willing to put themselves on the line such as a fight. He did a great job, and he played a great game as well.”

Yes, Bitetto cost his team a power play. Yes, he was off the ice for seven minutes, leaving the team with just five defensemen. But Bitetto wasn’t playing first pairing minutes by any stretch of the imagination. He played a grand total of 10:09 in the game. That may be down a little from where he would have been had he not spent those seven minutes in the box, but two of those would have been on the power play and he wouldn’t have seen the ice there anyway. In Bitetto’s NHL debut January 17th in Detroit, he played 11:01, and that was in a game the Predators weren’t in basically from the opening faceoff. In short, the other five defensemen probably didn’t mind picking up the extra shift or two.

Was the fight victory responsible for the two goals Nashville scored later on in the second? No.

Did the Predators win because Bitetto fought? Of course not.

But Bitetto went from being a guy the players saw briefly in training camp and briefly in his one previous game this season to a guy willing to stick up for his teammates. That is a personal victory that won’t show up in any standings other than the hockeyfights.com database.

Bitetto may be on the next plane to Milwaukee as soon as Mattias Ekholm is cleared to return to the lineup, but whenever he does go back, he knows that he has the respect of his teammates the next time he is in the Nashville locker room.

Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Shea Weber a beneficiary of Taylor Beck’s good listening skills

By Jim Diamond

Jumping over the boards late in the second period, Nashville Predators forward Taylor Beck saw a puck drifting towards him as he headed for the defensive zone of the Rangers.

Less than a minute after Roman Josi tied the game 1-1, the Predators were riding some momentum and looking to take their first lead of the game. With a good look at the net minded by Rangers goaltender Cam Talbot, no one could blame Beck if he took a rip at the puck. But something happened as the puck drifted toward the top of the right faceoff circle.

Beck’s eyes became cartoonishly wide, but he turned and peeled away, and before anyone could blink, Shea Weber stepped in and blasted the puck by Talbot on the far side. Talbot didn’t move as the puck went flying by him. The net was stretched to its absolute limit, so it looked like Beck made the right call on that one.

“I think I heard Webs yell, ‘Leave it,’” Beck said. “He’s got a harder shot than I do, so fortunate enough for him to put it in. I wanted it for a second, but I thought I would leave it for him.

“He’s the best shooter probably in the world, so I want to leave it for him for sure.”

On-ice communication can be difficult sometimes, especially in a full building like Bridgestone was Saturday afternoon. But Beck’s close proximity to Weber helped in that situation.

Weber confirmed that he did yell to Beck.

“I actually said, ‘Leave it,’ as I was winding up,” Weber said. “I didn’t know who it was, I just saw a right-handed shot coming off the bench. I thought I was in pretty good position to shoot it so I decided I would.”

The goal was Weber’s 12th of the season.

As hard as Weber’s slap shot looked in winning the Hardest Shot Contest at last month’s Skills Competition during the All-Star Game weekend in Columbus, Saturday afternoon’s blast looked even harder.

After a tough start to the second period, the goals by Josi and Weber sent the team into the third period up by one.

“I think that was a really important moment in the game because I thought we played a really strong first period and we weren’t quite at our best in the next 15 minutes or so,” Predators head coach Peter Laviolette said. “We end up going down a goal, and in the last five minutes to be able to pump in two, I think changes the complexion of the game, puts some life in the building, puts some life back in us.”

Despite giving up a goal to Ryan McDonagh early in the third, Mike Ribeiro wired one home at 12:46 of the third, and that one proved to be the game-winner for the Predators.

Pekka Rinne focuses as the play is up ice. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Tough but necessary first game back from injury for Pekka Rinne

In the end, the game goes down as a 5-2 loss, but for the Predators, and more importantly Pekka Rinne, the game was not nearly as bad as the final score would indicate.

After three weeks on the shelf with a knee injury sustained January 13th against the Vancouver Canucks, it was expected that Rinne would have some rust as he returned to the lineup Thursday night against the visiting Anaheim Ducks.

But rust combined with some seriously bad (borrowing a phrase from Barry Trotz) puck luck, added up to one night Rinne and the rest of his teammates would like to forget.

Things started off on a positive note even, with Rinne turning aside the first Duck shot on him early in the first when he stopped Jakob Silfverberg from the right side on a shorthanded attempt. The problems started immediately thereafter when Rinne thought he was going to hand the rebound off to Shea Weber, but Weber looked as though he thought the big Finn was going to cover the puck and get a faceoff. Silfverberg recognized the miscommunication, grabbed the puck, and flipped a backhand just underneath the crossbar.

“I was going to play it and keep the play going,” Rinne said. “Our guys were yelling at the same time. ‘Keep it, keep it,’ and then I was kind of between, didn’t really do anything. He was able to poke it off of me and just got it in front of the net and put it in.”

It was a goal that set the tone for the rest of the game.

“Obviously not the way we wanted to start, but the whole game was not good to begin with,” Weber said.

Later in the first, a Sami Vatanen shot deflected off Gabriel Bourque and by Rinne who couldn’t have seen it, making the game 2-0.

Early in the second, Matt Beleskey and Silfverberg scored goals 43 seconds apart to extend the lead to 4-0.

Following the second Silfverberg goal, Predators head coach Peter Laviolette called his one allotted timeout. Goalies don’t always come to the bench during a timeout, but Rinne did on this one, and then something interesting happened.

Laviolette walked to the end of the bench and spoke with Rinne as assistant coach Phil Housley addressed the rest of the team.

“I just wanted to make sure he was okay. I wanted to make sure that physically he was okay, mentally he was okay,” Laviolette said. “I think just coming back off a break like that, I’d rather have a conversation; maybe he wasn’t feeling that good. Everything was fine. I think staying in and battling like he did makes him better. He made some tremendous saves out there.”

Physically Rinne was fine, so there was no way he was going to come out of the game.

“It was good for me to get the minutes and get the full game under my belt,” Rinne said. “You can’t duplicate games in practices. Even though it wasn’t super busy for me, I was still tired, my legs were burning. It was three weeks off for me, now get it going again. I don’t see any more excuses after this one.”

Rinne finished with 21 saves on 25 shots faced. Corey Perry’s empty-net goal accounted for the final scoring margin.

In the end it was a loss, but a necessary step in what the Predators hope is Rinne’s return to pre-injury form. A form that earned him 29 victories and a .931 save percentage entering Thursday night. That same form the team will need him to revert back to if they wish to make a run far into the postseason, maybe even a late May matchup with those same Ducks.

Carter Hutton makes potential save of the season

Late in the third period of Tuesday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Nashville Predators goaltender Carter Hutton made what could be the save of the season.

With the Predators clinging to a 4-3 lead and on a power play even, Toronto’s Daniel Winnik hit the crossbar from the slot. Tyler Bozak chased down the rebound and threw the puck in front. The puck ricocheted off of Winnik and appeared to be headed by Hutton and into the Nashville net.

But then Hutton had a matrix moment.

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/embed?playlist=742860&site=predators

“Just a pop out one-timer there,” Hutton said. “It’s one of those ones it hits his body and you are kind of like, ‘Oh no.’ I was able to just kind of spin and had my eye on it and I was able to catch it with my stick. It is one of those ones, you just get lucky sometimes too. You battle on every puck and sometimes it goes your way.”

Hutton had a better look at it than his coach did.

“I saw it quick, but I didn’t know what happened exactly,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. “It looked like it was earmarked for the back of the net, but it wasn’t in the back of the net, so something spectacular happened.”

Indeed it did coach.

Nashville fans sing ‘O Canada’ as a thank you to the fans of Toronto

By Jim Diamond

A mid-November tilt in Toronto between the homestanding Maple Leafs and the Nashville Predators produced disastrous results on the ice for the home team in the form of a 9-2 loss to the Predators. But prior to the start of the game, the home fans rescued an anthem singer whose microphone died during her performance of the Star-Spangled Banner.

The Air Canada Centre faithful cleared their throats and finished the U.S. anthem in a united voice prior to puck drop.

When the teams squared off against one anther in the Leafs’ only visit to Smashville this season Tuesday night, the Bridgestone Arena crowd returned the favor to their Canadian brethren by joining Brett Kissell in the singing of “O Canada” as a cross-border gesture of goodwill.

Following the song, the Maple Leafs players on the ice tapped their sticks in appreciation.

Nashville captain Shea Weber was impressed as well.

“That was neat,” he said. Like they pointed out, the Toronto fans did a great job there of finishing the American one. That’s pretty cool. I wasn’t sure if a lot of people know (the Canadian anthem). We don’t hear it a lot down here, so that was very impressive.

Weber is a two-time gold medal winner with Team Canada.

Good on you Smashville.

Now if the two countries could just find a way to eliminate the exorbitant tariffs on Canadians traveling south and Goo Goo Clusters heading north, that whole NAFTA thing will be complete.

Ribeiro’s three assists have him on pace to eclipse franchise record

By Jim Diamond

Halfway through the overtime period of Tuesday night’s game against the visiting Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators center Mike Ribeiro found himself inside his own blue line along the boards near the Colorado bench. Avalanche forward Alex Tanguay came charging at Ribeiro, so he calmly lifted a saucer pass to Craig Smith near center ice.

After taking control of the puck, Smith had a clear breakaway and won the game with a wrist shot just past the glove of goaltender Semyon Varlamov.

“There was a guy coming behind me I think, and I didn’t want to go too hard so he couldn’t reach it,” Ribeiro said. “I was just trying to give him time to get close to the blue line, just put it in an area that he can just skate with it and not force it too much. Great goal.”

The assist was the third of the night for Ribeiro, the second time this season that the Montreal native has posted three helpers in a game. Ribeiro’s teammates marvel at his ability to find them with a perfect pass no matter where they are on the ice and no matter how many opponents are surrounding him.

“He’s great in high-pressure situations,” Smith said. “He seems to have a knack for just holding onto the puck and finding your stick. He seems to be pretty patient and calm, so whenever he has it, you’ve got to be ready.”

Ribeiro picked up a pair of secondary assists on Nashville’s first two goals, an even strength goal by Roman Josi and a power-play marker from Colin Wilson.

After 46 games, Ribeiro has 32 assists on the season, good for .70 assists per game. Paul Kariya holds the franchise record for assists in a season. He posted 54 in 2005-06, which equated to .66 per game.

Rookie Filip Forsberg had the other goal for Nashville Tuesday, the lone unassisted goal of the night. He has played nearly the entire season on Ribeiro’s wing and has been the recipient of many of Ribeiro’s passes, even if he isn’t quite sure how the puck ends up on his stick.

“I’ve been playing with him all year, and I still don’t understand how he does it sometimes,” Forsberg said. “That saucer pass to Smitty on the game winner there, there’s only a few select players that can do that.”

After a week off due to the All-Star break, Ribeiro’s hands were anything but rusty after the extended layoff.

“I think it is more your legs than anything,” Ribeiro said. “If you move your feet, the rest gets going. I think it is more mental than anything. You have that break, guys go away, and to be focused yourself to come back and have a good game, I think it’s hard to do.”

But he did do it, and the team will need him to continue to do so as the anchor of the team’s top line if they want to further the success they have had through the first 46 games of the season. And if he does, he may just find himself at the top of the list of the franchise’s most prolific passers.

Barry Trotz looking forward to a ‘home’ game in Nashville

By Jim Diamond

Barry Trotz was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and as the head coach of the Washington Capitals, he now lives in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Arlington, Virginia. But during a Tuesday afternoon conference call with the media in advance of Friday night’s game at Bridgestone Arena against the Nashville Predators, Trotz referred to Nashville as home on three different occasions.

It’s not a big surprise though. During the press conference held the day it was announced he would not return behind the Nashville bench, Trotz said that Nashville would always be home for him, but to hear him say it eight months removed from that emotional day hit, well, home.

“I’m excited, I’m excited to get back home and see some friends and get to see my family a little bit,” Trotz said when describing his feelings about Friday’s game. “I’m excited. It’s good to go back home.”

Hired to be Nashville’s first head coach soon after it was awarded a franchise, Trotz didn’t expect to last through the conclusion of the 2013-14 season in that same position.

“I just wanted to coach for a year and found a home in Nashville, Tennessee,” he said.

Trotz’s three adult children still live in the city, so he is looking forward to seeing them and spending what time he can with them while he is in town. In addition to his biological offspring, Trotz thinks pretty highly of some of the players on what will be the opposing team Friday night.

“I am so happy for Pekks,” Trotz said when asked about the performance of Pekka Rinne entering Tuesday’s action. “There are a lot of people you come across in this business that you love as your own children… Pekka is one of them.”

Rinne is one of Trotz’s now former players who have stayed active in Best Buddies, a charity that Trotz holds near and dear to his heart. Best Buddies pairs ‘buddies’ with individuals who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Moves can be hard on anyone, but the Trotzs’ move to the nation’s capital was a little tougher than an average family’s relocation because of the impact that it had on their youngest child, 13-year-old Nolan. Nolan has Down Syndrome, and living in suburban Nashville was all he knew prior to his father being hired to lead the Capitals.

“Originally it was pretty difficult,” Trotz said. “The school systems were a lot different here than they were in Brentwood. He had a great situation in Brentwood in terms of classroom, teachers, friends, all of those things. He had a pretty good setup. He was involved in a lot of things. He also had his brother and sisters that would come by the house almost daily or on the weekends grab him and have him over for a sleepover, those types of things. When we got here, it became pretty lonely for him real quickly because he didn’t have a lot of friends here and being special needs, it was a little bit difficult.”

It was a tough transition for Nolan, which meant it was incredibly painful for his parents, Trotz and his wife Kim.

“We found it was probably heart wrenching for mom and dad at first because we’d find him in his room looking through his yearbook and circling his friends,” Trotz said. “You could tell there was a sadness in his heart.”

Trotz reports that Nolan has made some strides in healing that sadness, and the family business has played a large part in that transformation.

“He’s starting to come out of it,” Trotz said. “He’s learning to play hockey, which he never liked to play hockey. We got him some hockey equipment and told him he’s Iron Man – he loves the superheroes, so we put a pair of skates on him and got him skating. He’s now starting to be a part of a special needs hockey program that they have here. He’s starting to make headway in that area.”

Trotz’s return to Nashville will be brief, as the Capitals have a road game in Dallas on Saturday. While Trotz will sleep in a hotel room Thursday night, step onto the visiting team’s bench Friday night, and lead a team other than the Predators for the first time inside Bridgestone Arena, he will be right at home.