Many Happy Returns, But No Happy Ending for the Predators

Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena the Nashville Predators welcomed back to the ice a pair of key veterans for the first time this season. Defenseman Francis Bouillon (left) had been battling concussion symptoms since last January, and forward Mike Fisher (right) has been recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. The players’ happy return wasn’t enough to get the Preds out of their early-season funk, however, as the San Jose Sharks spoiled the homecoming, defeating the Preds 3-1. (Photos: Getty Images).

Thunder Thieves
Tuesday night at Bridgesone Arena, was to be an evening of happy returns – and it was. The Nashville Predators were happily returning home from a long and arduous west coast roadtrip in which they dropped the first two in less than impressive fashion but ended on a positive note with a shutout win in Calgary. They looked forward to continuing to right the ship with some home cookin’ on familiar ice.

The stage for a special evening was set beautifully with a tremendous rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner by our fave, the wonderful Miss Jamie Cartwright.

The Preds were also celebrating the return to a pair of key veterans making their inaugural appearances for the season after battling through long-term injuries dating back to last season.

Defenseman Frankie Bouillon (out since last January with a concussion) and forward Mike Fisher (playing his first game since corrective offseason shoulder surgery) returned to the Nashville lineup, to the delight of the 15,121 fans in attendance. However it would be their opponents, Nashville’s two-time playoff arch nemesis, the San Jose Sharks who would steal the Preds’ thunder with a 3-1 win.

The loss was the fifth in the last six games for Nashville.

The Sharks took a 1-0 lead in the first period off a rare shorthanded goal given up by Nashville’s Pekka Rinne, who stopped 33 of 36 shots and really deserved a better fate.

At 14:22, in the closing seconds of the Predators’ first of four power plays on the night, San Jose mounted a two-on-two rush going the other way. Logan Couture slipped behind the Nashville defenders converging on teammate Martin Havlat’s shot from the high slot. Rinne blocked the initial shot but Couture, the Sharks’ talented second-year man, was able to put the rebound in over the stick of the Nashville netminder.

The score would stay 1-0 until 13:12 of the third as rookie Craig Smith returned to the scorer’s sheet with a hard fought power play goal, a backhanded rebound from the right post off a Shea Weber shot in the low slot. The suddenly aroused crowd was delirious, and it appeared as though a happy ending was still possible for the Preds faithful.

San Jose’s Joe Pavelski had other ideas. Less than a minute later, the San Jose forward tucked the puck just inside the right post on a nice give and go feed from Patrick Marlowe behind the net and just like that, at 14:09, the Preds were again down by a goal at 2-1.

Pavelski would put the game on ice with an empty-netter a little more than four-and-a-half minutes later to make it 3-1 and once again, Preds fans would be left scratching their heads.

Youth Will Be Served (With a Side Order of Experience…)
It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. The Predators now-pronounced youth movement was invented directly as a result of the team’s need to overcome the loss of key veterans to injury last season.

Subsequently, by Stanley Cup Playoffs time they were the youngest team in the postseason tournament, yet they made it beyond the quarterfinal round for the first time in franchise history.

At least partially as a result of that success, the Preds organization and General Manager David Poile made the bold decision to part ways with a number of Nashville veterans in the offseason, assuming that those youthful replacements who played so well last year were now ready to make the jump to prime time.

The departures of Steve Sullivan, J-P Dumont, Marcel Goc and (not-so-intentionally) Joel Ward to free agency and contract buyout left the Preds even younger coming into the 2011-12 season, with the added uncertainty of whether or not the team’s core of ‘young’ vets would be enough to keep Nashville on the rise to prominence in the Western Conference saddling the team’s immediate future.

The jury is still out on the success of that assumption, but Coach Barry Trotz remains hopeful. Trotz was diplomatic about his somewhat surprisingly underachieving squad following the loss Tuesday night.

Commenting on San Jose’s go-ahead score, just seconds after Nashville had tied the contest at 1-1, Trotz said, “That’s something you have to learn from – especially with a real, hard-working goal. They’re (San Jose) going to have a push, and you’ve got to come out with a big shift there. Obviously you’ve worked hard all game to get a goal, to get it tied up, and you’re thinking that with six minutes to go if you can battle you get one, and maybe get two; but they scored right away. It swings the momentum.”

The Preds played the Sharks tough all night, and neither of San Jose’s first two goals could be construed as ‘gimmes.’ Trotz seemed to use San Jose’s play as an object lesson for his largely youthful team to hopefully learn from. One of the things he pointed to was the opponent’s willingness to get the puck on net any way possible.

“In the first period they (San Jose) had 17 shots,” Trotz said in his postgame press remarks, “but a lot of them were from the outside or were wristshots. That’s sort of their mentality – they just want to put pucks on net; we don’t, and that’s one of the things we have to work on.”

For the eighth time in as many games, Nashville was out-shot by their opponent; this time by a margin of 36-20. Granted, that’s a better margin than we saw on the last roadtrip, but the message is clear: you can’t score if you don’t shoot – and the Predators are not scoring enough; not nearly enough.

Nonetheless, Trotz seemed like his old, patient and pragmatic self after this third straight loss on home ice. The paint was intact on the walls of the Predators’ dressing room after the game; Trotz has had his tirade last week in Vancouver; there was no need for a repeat performance. The team probably took a step sideways with the loss, but definitely not a step back.

One Fish, Two Fish, Hurt Fish, New Fish
Among the positives was the encouraging play of forward Mike Fisher, returning from offseason shoulder surgery for his first game of the season.

Fisher, acquired from the Ottawa Senators last February, played throughout the latter part of the 2010-11 season with a painful shoulder injury he suffered on November 2, 2010 versus Toronto while still with the Senators. Due to the Sens’ cap situation at the time, he was unable to go on the IR and was instead relegated to taking ‘maintenance days’ as the only recuperation for his infirmity.  Nonetheless, during those ‘good days’ when the shoulder was feeling better, Fisher looked every bit the player the Preds knew him to be; at other times, not so much.

After corrective surgery in May, it was assumed that Fisher would be ready to go by training camp. However, residual tenderness extended the typical three months’ recovery time for an injury of this nature.

At the first day of camp in September Fisher said that he was “making progress, steadily,” but that the shoulder was still not strong enough, noting later that he wouldn’t come back until he was completely ready. The good news is, now we know that he is at least very close to indeed being 100%.

Even during the physical ups and downs of last season, Fish looked at times unstoppable on the ice. Tuesday night his play showed flashes of his normal self, but said he believes there still things he needs to work on.

Fisher was diplomatic in his postgame comments, indicating that the Preds’ performance was one that he and the team could build on. Regarding his newly-repaired shoulder, Fisher indicated that it was still a work in progress, but that it actually felt better than he’d expected it to, particularly on faceoffs – something Trotz had indicated earlier he might not expect Fisher to do right away. Instead, Fish took the lion’s share of draws for Nashville on the night, winning 12 of 23.

“I still have to work on strength and little things, so I’m not as strong as I’d like to be,” Fisher admitted, “But that being said, I felt good; I felt like I could battle and do some good things, but overall I think faceoffs felt good tonight and I thought I felt a little better than where we ended up, for sure.”

Courage Cubed
I don’t know about you, but to me, just about the scariest thing I believe I could face as an NHL hockey player is to have my brain scrambled. While it’s true that concussions have always been a part of life in the NHL, the research and information that have come to light in recent years makes the proposition of receiving a one a true cause for concern.

The other Predators veteran making his first appearance in Predators Gold Tuesday night was defenseman Francis Bouillon. The Cube had his block knocked off back in January, forcing him to miss the entire second half of the season, including the Preds’ entire playoff run. Since then, along the way of battling back from the condition, Bouillon suffered a pair of setbacks with post-concussion symptoms that forced him to shut down his comeback efforts, and for a brief time had him contemplating retirement. Nonetheless, his patience and perseverance appear to have paid off.

In his return to the ice, Bouillon skated in the third defensive pairing with Jack Hillen and saw 17:32 of ice time. He moved the puck well and didn’t back down from contact – even when the contact was to his head.


San Jose’s Brad Winchester, perhaps inadvertently, but most positively forearmed Bouillon in the head while in the process of checking him into the glass at center ice. The hit drew a penalty and Bouillon reacted by getting ALL up in Winchester’s face, voicing his disapproval.

As it turned out, no harm was done on either side as the Sharks would successfully kill the penalty. However, the obvious courage displayed by Frankie was an encouraging sign. His presence, as Trotz would later acknowledge, will hopefully serve as a stabilizing force to the so-far, rather shaky nature of the Preds’ play on the young season.

Regarding his new defensive partner, Hillen, Bouillon exclaimed, “He’s a good defenseman; I like to play with him. He’s really mobile and moves the puck pretty well.”

I was especially impressed with Bouillon’s play; that he didn’t hold anything back — from the first big hit he laid at around the 8 minute mark of the first period, to standing his ground versus Winchester later on — Frankie looked like Frankie; it was a beautiful thing to see. His presence has been sorely missed.

Trotz agreed.

“It’s the first time in a long time, in some ways, that I didn’t feel we were out-manned. Getting those two veterans in the lineup stabilized everything. If we can get Martin Erat back into the lineup I think we can stabilize more and I think we’ll be able to move forward a little bit better than we have.

“I was really impressed with Frankie. You can see that he’s a veteran, poised player. He wasn’t backing down from anybody; he didn’t play shy. It was good to see him play, just because he’s such a great person – he’s one of those teammates that everybody cheers for.”

It wasn’t the happy ending the Preds were hoping for, however, for all but the most cynical, the return of Fisher and Bouillon was definitely encouraging to see.

It’s actually kind of refreshing to project the possible benefits of the Preds continuing perhaps to get a little older over the next few weeks.


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