Keeping That Sunny Disposition
It was a beautiful day in Middle Tennessee on Saturday. The sun shone upon the land; people were out walking, running, biking, and playing outside in 60 degree bliss. Everyone forgot about freezing temps and snow days for the first time in what seems like an eternity.
Speaking of eternity, ahem, how long has it been since I wrote a blog post?
The Nashville Predators are on All-Star hiatus this weekend after earlier in the week completing a successful, yet bittersweet six game roadtrip. They broke even at 3-3 but finished on the downtick, losing their final two games, and quite frankly, looked like a road weary team in the process.
They remain tied for fourth in the Western Conference with 60 points, the same tally as Anaheim, but with two games in hand on the Ducks.
Although the 3-3 roadie did little to compromise Nashville’s place in the standings, their stumble at the end of the trip did put a damper on the considerable momentum they’d been building toward challenging Detroit for the top spot in the Central Division.
A week ago, prior to losses on Monday in Calgary and Wednesday in Vancouver, Nashville was a mere four points behind the Red Wings, with both teams having played 48 games on the season. Now, at the Break, the Wings are up by six points on second-place Nashville, with a game in hand to boot.
Nevertheless, the Predators are making the best of challenging circumstances this season, receiving some surprising, if not completely unexpected performances by depth players in the organization. All this in the face of what has seemed a never-ending stream of injuries to their regulars since day one.
It has been well-documented how the play of winger Sergei Kostitsyn has lifted the team. However, the outstanding play of forwards Matt Halischuk and Chris Mueller, teamed on a line with J.P, Dumont, have at times over the past couple of weeks been the best players on the ice.
Additionally, guys like Jared Smithson, Cody Franson, Nick Spaling, and most recently, Alexander Sultzer, have stepped up to play strong roles in the Predators’ recent string of 18 wins out of 28 games played since November 30th.
The missing warriors are well-known as well; Matthew Lombardi: out since October 13th (48 games); Steve Sullivan: out since December 26th (16 games); Cal O’Reilly: out since January 2nd (12 games).
Additionally, Marty Erat has been in and out of the lineup for three multi-game stints, missing 16 games to date. David Legwand has endured a pair of 9 game absences for a total of 18 games out of the lineup. Ryan Suter missed 11 games early in the season, pushing the resolve of the Predators’ defensive corps to the core.
Then there’s Toots. Nashville’s combination sparkplug/lightning rod, forward Jordin Tootoo, while remaining as relatively injury-free as in any previous season of his 7-year NHL career, has nonetheless been forced to deal with other issues that have taken him away from the ice. Tootoo entered the NHL’s Substance Abuse Program on December 27th, and the team has not released any information as to the status of his condition.
In the meantime, during his absence, opponents on a more frequent basis once again, seem to be taking liberties with Nashville’s forwards, and recently, defensemen. Frankie Bouillon suffered an upper-body injury on a somewhat questionable hit two weeks ago in Chicago. Cube’s absence, however, may not have been acutely felt until one of this past week’s losses just prior to the All-Star break.
In the Predators’ loss to the Calgary Flames on Monday, Nashville’s 3rd-ranked penalty kill uncharacteristically gave up a pair of power play markers that were the difference in the game. Bouillon has been an integral part of the penalty kill unit all season.
One simply has to wonder what a difference Tootoo’s presence might have made, particularly on that long, ten-day, six-game trip. The Predators were a tired team even by the time they got to Calgary, and had narrowly escaped defeat to the Edmonton Oilers the night before. Could the influence of Toots’ physical game have helped spare the Predators a few lusty checks by the Flames, knowing that payback was soon likely to follow?
I’ve talked about it often before, but I will always believe that the Preds are a grittier, tougher team with Jordin Tootoo in the lineup – regardless of his offensive production. Until someone of his ilk, toughness-wise, appears on the horizon, without the Tootoo Train in the lineup, the Preds are mostly a finesse team, and the rest of the NHL knows it. Often the Preds rise above that label, but the perception – and thereby the gameplan of Nashville’s opponents – remains the same: beat ‘em up before they beat you.
So it was indeed sad to see Tootoo take his leave of absence last month, although everyone in the organization, I’m sure, was as encouraged as I to see him take the affirmative step toward getting the help he needed.
Now granted, nobody on the outside knows the nature of that for which Tootoo was seeking help. We don’t know how serious the problem, and as a result, whether he’d be out for a month or for the rest of the season.
But on this beautiful, sunshiny day, when Mother Nature gave us a glimpse; a reminder that better temps are just around the corner – yet another pleasant surprise dropped into my lap as my wife and I enjoyed the generosity of my loving Sis and her husband back in SoCal.
Most certainly unexpected, my sister, Janice, had sent Michelle and I a Christmas gift card to Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar on West End in Nashville. It was the first ‘nice’ restaurant we’d been able to experience in a very long time, given that I had been out of work for more than a year prior to this month.
The food was absolutely superb, as was the service. Our waiter, Sergei (whose accent I accurately ascertained to be Ukranian), was awesome. He explained in great detail the nuances of Fleming’s rather intimidating-to-a-non-wine-connoisseur wine list, and helped us choose the perfect wine to go with what can only be described as the perfect steak, Fleming’s Prime Bone-In Ribeye.
So what’s up with the restaurant review in the middle of a hockey post? Well, several minutes prior to the arrival of dessert, Michelle and I got a different kind of treat on Saturday night.
If ONLY I’d brought my whistle…
Our table was positioned along the outside edge of the main dining room, adjacent to a wall of finely-upholstered red leather booths. I sat with my back to the booth just a few feet from our table, which was unoccupied at the time we were seated.
As we sat enjoying our wonderful meal, engaged in conversation, and quite simply having one of our best date-nights in years, Michelle stops in mid sentence, and as comically nonchalant as could be imagined from one with eyes as big as saucers, she whispers, “OhhhMigod…JordinTooToojustsatdownbehindyou!”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Oh yeah. It’s him,” she said,
Toots was dining with another man and a young woman seated in the booth between them. However, just who the other two folks were, I have no idea (and I’ll tell you why later).
So there I sat, a huge Jordin Tootoo fan; a ten-year Predators Season Ticket Holder; a Preds blogger to boot – literally a few feet away, and I can’t even turn around to look! But there was no way I was going to invade his privacy. There was no way in hell I was gonna be ‘that guy.’ After all, this is Nashville. We pride ourselves on ‘acting like we’ve been there before,’ and, to be sure, if you live in this town long enough, you’re gonna see a celebrity in public, which I certainly had before; I wasn’t going to make a scene (although I really kinda wanted to!).
My wife asked, “So…are you gonna say something to him?” Her eyes were screaming back, pleading with me to not embarrass her.
“No.” I said. “…Not yet at least.”
I determined to wait until we were on our way out, and if the opportunity presented itself, give my regards to the Crazy Train.
We finished our wonderful meal and equally incredible dessert and coffee, and realized that we’d better go before they brought anything else out, lest we explode. So as I got up, I turned, and for the first time, was able to verify that the young man seated a few feet behind me was indeed Jordin Tootoo.
I wasn’t nervous. Like I said, I’ve done this before; I’ve pretty much always been fearless in the face of making an ass of myself in the company of celebrities – it’s just the way I roll. However, I was so focused on trying to make eye contact with Toots that I never even glanced at his tablemates. So that’s why I have no idea who he was dining with (although, based on the general description Michelle gave of the other man, I do have an opinion of whom he might be, but I’m gonna keep that to myself until I can follow up with other sources to check out the possibility).
Finally, after about a second and a half of staring, I approached the booth and reached for Tootoo’s forearm with my left hand, just as he looked up and thankfully, didn’t punch me between the eyes on reflex.
“We miss you on the ice, man,” I said, as I extended my right hand to shake his.
Toots nodded and replied in his signature gravel-baritone, “Well, thanks. I’ll be back soon.”
And yes, I did actually get my right hand back.
Of course, I kid. Jordin was completely friendly and as accommodating as he could be. If you happen to read this, Toots, thank you so much for your graciousness in putting up with my imposition.
It was a great finish to a fantastic evening. Not only was my hunger satiated by Fleming’s outstanding cuisine, a good deal of my curiosity regarding Tootoo’s status was satisfied as well.
Not to assume that Tootoo’s return is imminent, but when someone looks as fit as he looked, and is as confident as he was in proclaiming it, I think it’s safe to believe that ‘soon’ could be an accurate description of Jordin’s reassimilation into the Nashville Predators lineup.
Only time will tell.
Roll on Mighty Jordin. Indeed, roll on back home soon.
* * * * *