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‘Amazing teammate’ Brad Hunt rewarded with first game as a Predator

By Jim Diamond

When a hockey coach announces the team’s starting lineup prior to a game, each name called usually elicits some positive cheers from his teammates. Tuesday night, there was a little something extra when Predators head coach Peter Laviolette called Brad Hunt’s name as one of the two starting defensemen.

“Everybody was yelling, “Huntsy, Huntsy,’” goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “It was really good.”

Few players placed in a similar situation to what Hunt has experienced the last three months would have handled it with as much dignity and class as the 28-year-old defenseman has.

Claimed off of waivers from the St. Louis Blues on January 17th, Hunt has been a healthy scratch ever since, a stretch of 35 consecutive games with DNP – did not play – next to his name in the league’s statistics. That’s a long three months of just practices and extended work following morning skates. That can get old, and can get old quickly.

“If I would think about myself, it’s not the easiest situation and he’s handled it super well,” Rinne added. “It’s unbelievable his mindset. He works so hard. We were all really happy to see him get the ice time tonight and he did a really good job with Matty Irwin. I was really happy for the guy. He’s one of those guys who is an amazing teammate. He’s always in a good mood.”

At the time of Hunt’s waiver claim, the Predators were without the services of both Roman Josi and P.K. Subban, both out due to upper-body injuries, leaving the team hurting for blueliners. Soon after Hunt joined the team, Josi and Subban healed, leaving eight healthy defensemen on the roster.

Hunt’s last game played with the Blues was January 10th against Boston. His last goal, and only goal of this season, was December 13th, scored in Nashville against the Predators. It’s safe to say that most in attendance, media included, at Bridgestone Arena Tuesday night would not know Hunt if they were standing next to him.

Not having a next game to look forward to, a player can easily become a malcontent and make things difficult for all around him. That didn’t happen in Hunt’s case.

“It was really good,” Laviolette said. “This is a kid that has worked hard every day for a few months now just waiting for a game, waiting to get his number called and he did tonight. It was great to see him because it was our first look at him inside of a game. He’s a real good skater, a good puck mover. I think just getting him out on the ice and getting eyes on him was important again as we move forward towards the postseason.”

Having already clinched a spot in the playoffs, the game did not mean a whole lot for the Predators, but they are still jockeying for position in the Western Conference standings. They have an outside chance of catching the St. Louis Blues for third place in the Central Division, meaning they would play the Minnesota Wild in the opening round of the playoffs. There is a better chance that they can catch and surpass the Calgary Flames for the first wild card spot, which would match the Predators with the first-place team in the Pacific Division, currently the Anaheim Ducks.

Hunt’s stat line for the game won’t blow anyone away – no points in 16:29 of ice time with a couple of blocked shots. But his appearance did give the coaching staff a look at what he could do against another team, and it gives them another option going into the playoffs.

Forsberg hopeful for a third-straight hat trick Saturday

By Jim Diamond

Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz was a big fan of referencing the hockey gods during his time in Nashville when he held the same position with the Predators. Well, if the hockey gods have any sense of humor, they might be smiling down upon Bridgestone Arena late Saturday afternoon when Trotz and his Capitals face the Predators.

In Thursday night’s 4-2 victory over the visiting Colorado Avalanche, Predators forward Filip Forsberg notched a natural hat trick, recording his 20th, 21st, and 22nd goals of the season. That hat trick followed Tuesday night’s three-goal performance in the overtime loss to Calgary.

The hat-haired Predators fans leaving Bridgestone Arena for the second consecutive game didn’t seem to mind though.

Two consecutive hat tricks are rare, but a third? That seems like a lot to ask for.

But again, those hockey gods.

For those that might not remember, it was Washington that sent Forsberg to Nashville in a last-minute 2013 trade deadline day headscratcher of a trade that sent Martin Erat and Michael Latta to the Capitals. Washington made Forsberg the 11th overall pick in the 2012 Entry Draft and then general manager George McPhee thought that he was expendable to acquire a veteran like Erat.

In the balance of the 2013 season, Erat had one regular season goal in nine games played and no points in the one playoff series he participated in as the Capitals were bounced in the first round by the New York Rangers.

The following season, Erat had one goal and 23 assists in 53 regular season games, thus ending his tenure in Washington.

In his first two full seasons in Nashville, Forsberg has posted 26 and 33 goals respectively. With 22 goals through 60 games this season, a continuance of this hot streak will have Forsberg challenging the franchise record of 33 goals he shares with Jason Arnott.

Does Forsberg think he has a third consecutive hat trick on his fiery hot stick?

“I mean I would lie if I said no, but you can’t expect that,” Forsberg said with a laugh after the game.

You can’t expect it, but for anyone in the mood for a good story line, well they can certainly hope, can’t they?

Calgary visiting Nashville on a Tuesday about as common as the sun rising in the east

By Jim Diamond

As a result of Monday’s Presidents Day holiday, Tuesday may have had a very Monday feeling to it for many who had the holiday off from work. That is until those attending and covering the Predators home game against the visiting Calgary Flames entered Bridgestone Arena Tuesday. That’s because, well, all of the Predators home games against the Flames come on Tuesdays. At least it seems that way anyway.

Tuesday night was Calgary’s 34th all-time visit to Nashville, the 14th of which came on a Tuesday. That may be fewer than half of their trips to Bridgestone, but the recent history shows the Tuesday visits are much more common as of late.

With the 6-5 overtime loss Tuesday night, it marked the ninth Tuesday home game against Calgary in the last 12 times they have played in Nashville, including five of the last six.

The longest streak of Tuesday home games against Calgary you ask? It’s four consecutive times January 5, 2010, October 19, 2010, February 1, 2011, and December 13, 2011.

The Predators are now 6-3-5 in their 14 Tuesday home games against Calgary. The last three have gone past regulation time, with Nashville dropping two of the games in overtime and one in a shootout.

No matter the day, bizarre things happen when these teams get together. Filip Forsberg recorded a hat trick Tuesday night. He becomes the second Predator to get a hat trick against Calgary in a losing effort. Eric Nystrom did it first, and he did it in style, getting four goals in a 5-4 shootout loss January 24, 2014 in Calgary.

If Bovada has odds on the Flames’ visits to Nashville next season, bet the mortgage on them happening on Tuesday.

Predators follow up gross performance with a non-gross one

By Jim Diamond

Momentum can be a funny thing in hockey. When you have it, everything seems to go right and when you don’t, you get things like Saturday’s “gross” performance against the Florida Panthers as per the parlance of Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette.

Fewer than 24 hours later, the Predators came out of the gates Sunday with a metaphorical burr under their saddles against the Dallas Stars. There were some odd fights, bad penalties and just about everything else you could not imagine happening.

“I didn’t doubt that they would be ready to play tonight,” Laviolette said after the game.

Although he didn’t come right out and say it, odds are good that he strongly suggested they do so following Saturday’s performance.

Even though they were playing fairly decently Sunday, they were still down 3-0 more than halfway through the game. But then the p = mv finally turned in the Predators favor.

Roman Josi took advantage of a disturbance in front of the Dallas net to the get the Predators on the scoreboard. That disturbance came in the form of Viktor Arvidsson getting punched in the face and losing his helmet while falling to the ground in front of Kari Lehtonen.

With a power play carrying over into the third, Nashville finally caught the break they were due from the zebras when Jamie Benn was whistled for a hooking penalty at 22 seconds of the third. Josi struck again on the 5-on-3 to make it 3-2, and Calle Jarnkrok tied the game at the 4:40 mark with an impressive wrister after using Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak as a screen.

Arvidsson took an offensive zone penalty just 14 seconds after Jarnkrok’s goal, but in another twist of momentum fate, the Predators turned that into the game-winning goal.

On the Dallas power play, Tyler Seguin tried to stickhandle into the Nashville zone at the blue line. Filip Forsberg dispossessed him and was off to the races on a breakaway.

“I’m just trying to get my big feet moving to be honest with you on the blue line,” Forsberg said with a laugh. “Just trying to get some speed and it was pretty much a breakaway from the blue line. I just tried to shoot it low glove and fanned on the shot and it went five-hole. The best shot in hockey, the miss.”

Now the big challenge for the Predators will be trying to carry the momentum of Sunday’s victory through their five-day break which begins Monday. With the St. Louis Blues seeing some results since Ken Hitchcock was given the pink slip, the battle for third place in the Central Division will be tight. Also tight will be the battle for the Western Conference’s two wild card spots, which look now to be a battle between Los Angeles, Calgary, and whichever of the Blues and Predators that does not get third in the Central. Vancouver, Dallas, and Winnipeg could also get in the wild card conversation.

When they return from the break, the Predators play back-to-back road games in Minnesota and Columbus, both teams are already solidly in the playoff picture. It’s in the Predators best interest to not be gross in those games as they begin the final stretch of the season.

Former Predator captain Greg Johnson makes a return visit to Nashville

By Jim Diamond

Former Predator captain Greg Johnson has the rare honor of receiving credit for scoring a goal at 0:00 of the first period of a game. That game was played Jan. 23, 2006 in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. But in reality, Johnson actually scored that goal two months earlier in a November game played against the Red Wings.

Midway through the first period of the Predators-Red Wings game on Nov. 21, 2005, Johnson scored a goal to give the Predators a 1-0 lead. About a minute after that goal, a medical emergency on Detroit’s bench halted the game. Jiri Fisher, a promising young defenseman for the Red Wings, collapsed due to cardiac arrest. Thanks to quick action by the team’s medical staff, a nearby doctor, and even one of the on-ice officials, Fisher was resuscitated.

The game was rescheduled to be played in its entirety in January, but the league did not want to strip the Predators of the lead they had, so they started the game with a 1-0 lead with the normally impossible goal credited to Johnson at 0:00 of the first period. Nashville eventually won the game 3-2.

Johnson and former Predators goaltender Tomas Vokoun were in Nashville Saturday as part of the NHL’s Centennial Fan Arena and Truck Tour.

Following his time in Nashville, Johnson signed a contract to re-join the Red Wings, his first NHL team. Some preseason medical exams revealed a potential heart issue with Johnson. With Fischer’s situation still fresh in his mind, he quickly realized that his playing career was over.

Asked about the status of his health currently, Johnson had good news.

“Everything is fine,” he said. “There were some risks and complications initially and with the Jiri Fischer thing. I was 35 with a young family and it wasn’t worth the risk. It was just time to walk away.”

Prior to Saturday’s Predators game against the visiting Florida Panthers, Johnson and Vokoun spent considerable time signing autographs for fans. The first game in Predators history was played against Florida, and Johnson took the franchise’s first faceoff in that game.

His most memorable goal as a Predator came in Game 4 of the 2004 series against the heavily favored Red Wings. Nashville evened the series 2-2 in that game before eventually falling to Detroit in six games.

“The goal in Game 4 of that series against the Wings it kind of tied the series,” Johnson said. “It was kind of a clinching goal. I think there were like eight minutes left. I just remember the building exploding.“

Johnson, a graduate of the University of North Dakota, has transitioned into the finance world in his post-hockey career. He laced up the skates and took a spin on the outdoor rink adjacent to Bridgestone Arena Saturday.

“I skated on the outdoor rink, I think it was the first time I’ve been on skates in seven years,” he said. “I was worried I was going to embarrass myself and fall down.”

Asked if getting back on the ice stoked a fire in him, he said that feeling the ice brought back some memories.

“I miss it,” Johnson said. “I don’t go to many sporting events, just the energy I can feel. I’m excited to be back in the building. I miss the adrenaline rush. There’s nothing like being a professional hockey player. I miss it dearly.”

Johnson played 502 of his 785 career NHL games in a Predator sweater. It’s no surprise that he feels a special connection to the city and to the team.

“In my heart I am a Predator and a big Predator fan,” he said.

Harry Zolnierczyk scores first NHL goal in nearly three years

By Jim Diamond

It has been quite a while since Harry Zolnierczyk scored an NHL goal, almost three years in fact. But at 9:01 of the second period Thursday night, Zolnierczyk ended the 1,087 day drought with a hard-nosed goal that put the Predators ahead of the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets 2-1.

Nashville’s lightly used fourth line of Colton Sissons, Cody McLeod, and Zolnierczyk was buzzing around the Columbus zone. Battling Blue Jacket defenseman David Savard in front of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, Zolnierczyk got just enough of a backhand shot to make it across the goal line while he was falling to the ice. It was his first since Feb. 5, 2014 when he was a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“That’s all we are supposed to do as a fourth line,” Zolnierczyk said. “When we get an opportunity to be out there, we’ve just got to make sure we’re creating offense, creating energy, and keeping our guys going in the right direction.”

Since his time with the Penguins, Zolnierczyk has had very brief NHL stops on Long Island (two games played) and with Anaheim (one NHL game played), as well as AHL stints with Wilkes-Barre, Bridgeport, San Diego, and Milwaukee.

“I guess over the last couple of years, it’s been tough trying to find my spot, find my role with a team,” Zolnierczyk said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to kind of create one here right now with this little run. It’s always nice to contribute.”

Zolnierczyk looked like he was going to get on the score sheet early Thursday night as he carried the puck into the Columbus zone on a 3-on-1 rush two minutes into the first period. Bobrovsky turned aside his shot, and Zolnierczyk’s momentum carried him hard into the end boards.

Nashville’s coaching staff only gave Zolnierczyk 6:43 of ice time in the game, but he was noticeable each time he was out there.

“As far as Harry goes, he’s instant energy,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. “He just moves. He’s fast. He plays the game fast. He rambles around and hits things and goes to the net.”

Laviolette was effusive of his praise of his fourth line, all of whom played fewer than nine minutes in the game.

“They were awesome, they were awesome,” Laviolette said. “From start to finish, that line Sissons and McLeod and Zolnierczyk, they just brought energy. They moved forward. They put the puck in the offensive zone. They banged things around. They banged bodies. They went to the crease. Harry got one. Mac could have had one. They just bring good energy, good physicality, and they’re bringing some good offense too.”

The Predators star players recognize the value fourth liners like Zolnierczyk bring to the team.

“I feel like that whole fourth line has been a big spark for us as of late,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “Harry, huge goal. He mucked it in. It is nice to see those guys get rewarded. Anytime they get a goal, it’s a huge boost for the team.”

Predators lose Roman Josi in victory over Bruins

By Jim Diamond

Entering Thursday night’s game against the visiting Boston Bruins, the Predators were a banged-up team. Exiting the game, the injury picture is worse, possibly much worse depending on the status of star defenseman Roman Josi.

At the 15:31 mark of the first period, Josi was hit high, hard, and late by Boston’s Anton Blidh in the left corner of Nashville’s defensive zone. Exacerbating matters was the fact that Josi’s stick was up, hitting him in the face as Blidh finished his hit.

Josi fell to the ice immediately and stayed there for several seconds before skating off the ice to Nashville’s dressing room in great distress. Josi did not return to the game, with the team announcing he was out with an upper-body injury.

Predators head coach Peter Laviolette was succinct when asked his opinion of the hit postgame, “I thought it was late and dirty,” he said.

In the oddly rough game played between two teams who don’t see each other very often, Josi’s minutes were divided among the Predators other blueliners, most notably to Mattias Ekholm, who played 29:11 and Anthony Bitetto. Bitetto’s 20:08 of ice time Thursday night is nearly double his season average.

When your name is called every other shift, getting a quick breather on the bench is key.

“It’s more a bit of getting on the ice and getting off the ice and really get the rest going as soon as you can,” Ekholm said. “You know you are either going to get out there right away or within a minute or so. It’s different, especially when you lose a guy that logs about 26-27 minutes a night. It wasn’t great for us, but we managed that and it was a great win for us.”

Bitetto has had a tough season to date, sustaining two long-term injuries and just returning to the lineup in the last week.

“This was a good test,” Bitetto said. “I think the more I get involved in games like that, the better I am going to feel. I think tonight was a good test for me, and I think I felt really well, especially down the stretch.”

Laviolette was impressed with the response he saw from Bitetto’s increased minutes.

“Even for Tony to get more minutes and get back into it,” he said. “A game like that can be good for Tony where he starts to push the minutes and he’s counted on more.”

With the Predators headed out on a five-game road trip that starts Saturday in Colorado, the health of their blue line is of significant concern. With P.K. Subban still sidelined with an upper-body injury of his own, playing a significant number of games without their top two defensemen will be a difficult test for their remaining blueliners.

Pekka Rinne on Shea Weber’s shot; ‘It just hurts’

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Pekka Rinne (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

By Jim Diamond

Heading into Tuesday night’s matchup against the visiting Montreal Canadiens, many Nashville Predators will be facing former Predators captain Shea Weber for the first time in their NHL careers.

When asked about it following Monday’s practice at Ford Ice Center, they were all looking forward to the new challenge.

Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne has faced countless thousands of Weber shots in practice over the years. He was asked what sets Weber’s shot apart from other players who shoot the puck hard.

“It just hurts,” he said. “He’s a big body and he’s so strong. I guess shooting the puck is also about technique. He has all of those things. It does come hard. It is one of the better shots in the NHL, especially his one-timer. He’s still pretty accurate with it. It’s just so quick, so fast.”

Weber is the two-time defending champion of the NHL’s Hardest Shot Competition at the All-Star weekend’s skills competition. He won last year’s event in Nashville with a shot of 108.1 mph, which was just four-tenths of a mile per hour slower than his 2015 winner.

With eight power-play goals this season, Weber leads all NHL defensemen and is tied for second overall, one behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.

As much as a handful as Weber is in his team’s offensive zone, he is equally difficult on opponents in Montreal’s defensive zone. Weber leads the Canadiens and ranks eighth in the league, averaging 26:02 of ice time per game.

Like Rinne, many of Nashville’s forwards have battled Weber in practice for years. With the intensity that Weber brings to the practice ice, his former teammates know that they are in for a long evening Tuesday.

“It’s going to be very different,” said Colin Wilson. “In today’s game, a lot of the accolades go to the real offensive defensemen and Webby, his defensive play is unparalleled. He’s unbelievable down there. He’s so strong. Even in practice, 3-on-3s, his strength is pretty incredible.”

Filip Forsberg has been on an offensive tear lately, posting five goals in his last six games. He knows that battling against Weber will be tough, but he is looking forward to seeing how he measures up against him.

“You always want to match yourself up against the best, and he’s definitely one of them out there,” Forsberg said.

Throughout his NHL career, no one has had a better view of the work Weber does in the defensive zone than Rinne.

“A player like him, there’s no other player like him in the league,” Rinne said. “The things that he brings; his strength, his ability to move guys and stuff like that, I don’t think there’s another guy like him.”

David Poile sent Weber to Montreal in exchange for P.K. Subban in a late June blockbuster trade. Poile spoke with the media following Monday’s practice. A large number of Montreal scribes were there to hear Poile’s thoughts.

“I see now where Shea is probably getting the recognition that he deserved,” Poile said. “We’re a little under the radar here in Nashville media wise, not today. Shea was, I think, in the top three for the Norris Trophy three times. I think he should have won it at least once and he didn’t. I think that in Montreal, with all due respect to Nashville, that he might have already won a Norris Trophy. And maybe this year in Montreal and getting all of the recognition that he is, maybe this will be the year that he wins the Norris Trophy.”

Getting to know Josh Ray and Annie the service dog

By Jim Diamond

It started out as a tweet of a picture of an adorable Yellow Labrador Retriever sitting on the glass at Friday night’s Nashville Predators season opening game against the Chicago Blackhawks, and the legend of Annie the service dog has been growing ever since.

As Annie rested underneath a patio table at a Brentwood Starbucks lapping up a puppuchino, Josh Ray, Annie’s owner, was asked how she is handling her newfound fame.

“I can’t believe that it happened,” Ray said. “It just blew up.”

Due to many requests, Annie, who will turn 2 January 1st, now has her own Twitter account.

Of course with all of this attention, Annie did need to do some shopping in hopes of going incognito when she wanted some privacy.

(more…)

Service dog takes in Predators season opener

By Jim Diamond

Storylines were abundant in Friday night’s season opener for the Nashville Predators.

The first game of the season, sure.

P.K. Subban’s first game as a Predator, no doubt.

A win over the Central Division Blackhawks in a tightly-played one-goal game? Absolutely.

The power play firing on all cylinders. Yes.

But tonight, I am writing about a photo, and a slightly out of focus one at that.

Shooting from a photo hole in the Predators defensive zone in the second period, I had a good angle of Roman Josi carrying the puck up ice, so I started firing the camera. I thought I had some good shots, but when I ran back upstairs to edit, I noticed the photos were a little out of focus.

Taking hockey pictures can be extremely frustrating. With the speed of the game, locking in tack-sharp focus can be difficult. You throw out a whole lot more than you keep.

Getting ready to dump that series of shots into the laptop’s trash, something caught my eye. There, just above the Pedigree dasherboard advertisement, focusing intently on the action on the ice.

Roman Josi carries the puck up ice with an adorable observer over the Pedigree board advertisement. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

Roman Josi carries the puck up ice with an adorable observer over the Pedigree board advertisement. (Jim Diamond/Rinkside Report)

You can’t trash a photo like that, even if the hard to take a bad picture of Roman Josi is a little blurry. A photobomb like that is just too good not to share.

So, I threw it out on Twitter and my mentions, well, they were flying fast and furious for the remainder of the game.

Not wanting to miss an opportunity to find out who this dog, and oh yeah his owner, is, I ran downstairs to the 100 level.

At the under 6:00 media timeout of the third period, I made my move. Media timeouts in hockey are just 90 seconds in length, so not wanting to disturb the fans in the high priced seats near the glass while the action was going on, I had to work fast. In a one-goal game between the Predators and the Blackhawks, tensions can run high.

After introducing myself as a writer and a photographer, I told the surprised gentleman that I captured an interesting shot of his quadruped and asked if I could have his permission to use the photo in a post. He was more than happy to allow it. The owner’s name is Josh Ray, and his furry friend is an adorable Yellow Labrador Retriever named Annie. In addition to being cute, Annie is Ray’s service dog.

The game was Annie’s first hockey contest, and Ray said that she handled the noise and excitement like a champ. Service dogs are trained to handle all kinds of different circumstances, and with more than 17,000 yelling fans, loud music, and goal horns Annie just took it all in stride.

And since my mom’s name is Annie, well that just makes this story even more awesome because my mom is the coolest person I know.

Oh, and conspiracy theorists, Josh and Annie were not planted there by Pedigree, it was just a crazy coincidence.