Preds shed challenges, question marks en route to Saturday's landmark game

Sunday, November 6, 2011 at 10:05pm
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(Courtesy Nashville Predators)

It was not just another night.

Not for the city, which was in its major professional sports infancy and which was viewed as well off the beaten path of the hockey world. Not even for the players, who made their living in the sport after having grown up on frozen ponds, lakes and rivers around the world.

“I remember after the game being on the bike next to [defenseman] Jay More and we were both saying how kind of nervous we were, and it just didn’t have that feel of a regular game or a home-opener like any other year,” Greg Johnson said. “There was just something really different about it.

“There were a lot of unknowns. Just to start a new franchise with a group of guys … with it being a new organization, the unknowns of how the sport would take down there. I just remember it kind of being a nerve-wracking and exciting day.”

These days, an NHL contest on Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena is business as usual. This Saturday will be different only in that when the Nashville Predators host the Montreal Canadiens (faceoff is 6 p.m.) it will be the 1,000th regular-season contest in franchise history.

It is a landmark number for an organization that has endured financial challenges, a change in ownership and a period of almost constant speculation about its prospects for long-term viability in the market.

Looking back to Oct. 10, 1998, the night when Nashville played its first game — the night that frayed the nerves of Johnson and his teammates — it turns out there were many things in place that now seem so familiar.

Beyond just the fact that the general manager and head coach are the same as they were then, there also were philosophical foundation pieces in place. Even though the Predators lost 1-0 to the Florida Panthers that night, their sense of identity already was clear.

“I don’t remember it being a downer because we got shut out,” Tom Fitzgerald, the first Predators captain, said. “It was a 1-0 game. … We weren’t going to get into a track meet where we sprint up and down the ice. This isn’t pond hockey. We weren’t just going to exchange chances after chances after chances. We knew the only way we could be successful was to play a tight game — a good, strong, disciplined, defensive-minded game.

“You lose 1-0, and we’ll take that because we wanted to keep our goals-against down — we had good goaltending, good young mobile defensemen. Scoring goals was probably going to be the weak link.”

All these years and all those games later, the Predators remain rooted in that defense-first approach. The notion was reaffirmed last week when goalie Pekka Rinne signed a seven-year $49 million extension — the richest contract in franchise history — and defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter were next in line for mega-deals of their own.

The difference, of course, is that Rinne, Suter and Weber were drafted and developed by the Predators, whereas those who took to the ice for that first contest all had come from other organizations.

“I’ve always believed that goaltending was analogous to pitching in baseball — I can’t be having just average goaltending,” general manager David Poile said. “… We’ve had good goaltending in Nashville for all the years I’ve been here.”

Then, it was Mike Dunham, who made 25 saves against Florida that night and was one of the three stars in each of Nashville’s first five games. The last of those was a 5-2 loss at Detroit in which he made 52 saves, which stood as the franchise record for more than 10 years.

Dunham and Fitzgerald both are scheduled to be on hand this Saturday for No. 1,000. Johnson, who took the opening faceoff against the Panthers was invited too but had to decline because of a previously scheduled family event.

“When I think of the Predators now, I don’t think of an expansion team,” Johnson said. “I think of a team that basically, pretty much every year is going to be in the playoffs, probably is going to be competitive, going to be a strong team.

“I think one of the other things that made us all nervous is that we wanted to be respectable from Day One. We wanted to be a good team and a good organization, and I think that’s one thing the Predators have been. From Day One we were competitive and always seemed to do things the right way. It kind of started that night.”

They won their second game, 3-2 against the Carolina Hurricanes, and throughout the inaugural season never went more than four straight games without earning a point. They never have had the first overall pick in the draft but also never have had a roster populated by big-name talent.

Since then, their six playoff appearances (all in the past seven seasons) are more than the combined total of the three expansion teams that followed in the two years after the Predators debuted.

“We were not going to be a doormat, people were not going to look at us as an automatic two points,” Fitzgerald said. “That was the mentality of the Predators. That was it. We are not just an expansion team. … Our goals are to make the playoffs. Our expectation is to compete every single shift and to battle, and wins and losses will take care of themselves if we’re consistent, detailed and disciplined.

“I know we were.”

Nearly 1,000 games later there’s not a lot that has changed.