In my mind, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are the best “sports theatre” available. The atmosphere, the intensity, the drama is all there. Now, the National Hockey League has been blessed with two Conference Finals that will go seven games for the first time since the year 2000. This is really something special.
The Nashville Predators have not been involved in a Game Seven yet. In my three seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, we did not have that experience either. In Buffalo, where I spent most of my time prior to my move to Nashville in September of 1998, there were but a relative few. In 45 years, the Sabres are 1-6 all-time in series that go the distance:
- 1983 L, 2-3 OT at Boston (Bruins led series, 3-2)
- 1992 L, 2-3 at Boston (Bruins led series, 3-1)
- 1994 L, 1-2 at New Jersey (Sabres won Game 6 in 4 OT)
- 1997 W, 3-2 OT vs. Ottawa (Ottawa led series, 3-2)
- 2001 L, 2-3 OT vs. Pittsburgh (Sabres led series, 3-2)
- 2006 L, 2-4 at Carolina (Sabres took Game 6 in OT)
- 2011 L, 2-5 at Philadelphia (Sabres led series, 3-2)
Each one of those series has special story lines as noted. The 1997 series with Ottawa was special to me – as I was calling the games on radio and it included my one and only Game Seven.
The drama was all there. Goaltender Dominik Hasek quit on his team in Game Three, sprinting off the ice after a goalmouth collision, turning things over to Steve Shields, who had all of 15 games of NHL experience at that point in his career. Shields finished with a 3-2 win in that contest, but then the Senators (in their first playoff series since the NHL’s return to Ottawa), took the next two games, 1-0 in overtime at Ottawa and 4-1 at Buffalo. Andrei Trefilov finished Game Five for Shields.
The pressure was on for Game Six at Ottawa. The Sabres had won the Northeast Division Title that season and would eventually take home a lot of postseason hardware from the NHL Awards Show that June in Toronto.
In that sixth game, Shields turned in a masterpiece – a 3-0 shutout of the Senators, setting up the fourth Game Seven in Sabres history. The Sabres tied the game on a face-off play involving Derek Plante and Alexei Yashin. Trying to pull the draw to the end boards, Plante tied up Yashin’s stick and the puck ended up blooping over goaltender Ron Tugnutt into the Ottawa net.
That eventually helped the game into overtime and here/”hear” is how it ended.
Game Seven is truly special – enjoy the wealth of them that has been bestowed upon us this weekend!
With their victory in Washington on March 28, the Nashville Predators clinched a playoff berth, the eighth time they have managed to do so in 11 seasons. That’s a record of consistency interrupted by the previous two campaigns.
The interesting thing to consider here is: What caused them to fall out of the playoff picture during those two seasons?
2012-13 Nashville Predators:
The abbreviated 2012-13 team (the lockout-shortened season started on Jan. 19) never had a chance when you examine the stats. The previous season, when the Preds went two playoff rounds (knocking off Detroit in Nicklas Lidstrom’s last go-round, before losing to the Coyotes in the second), they were fifth overall in the League. That success was built on having the top power play in the NHL, which gave them the eighth-best offensive numbers overall. The 2011-12 team was also 10th in goals-against. All of those are great indicators of success, and they proved to be just that.
The following season, in 48 games, the Predators had all the negative indicators: tied for last offensively (the power play dropped off to 17th), defensively, they fell from 10th to 20th and their penalty kill was next-to-last. David Legwand led the team with 12 goals. Gabriel Bourque was next, with 11 in 34 games played, and Mike Fisher had 10 in 38; Shea Weber and Nick Spaling were next with nine. Patric Hornqvist was only able to play in half the schedule.
The 2012-13 Predators began the season 7-3-4, but finished 9-20-5 for a 16-23-9 final mark. They rallied to a 15-14-8 record, but then lost 10 of their final 11 (1-9-1).
2013-14 Nashville Predators:
Gone from the team when training camp began in September of 2013 were: goaltender Chris Mason (to Europe); forwards Martin Erat (traded with Michael Latta to Washington in the Filip Forsberg deal at the 2013 trade deadline), Sergei Kostitsyn (to the Kontinental Hockey League), Matt Halischuk (free agent signee by Winnipeg), Bobby Butler (traded to Florida), Brandon Yip (free agent with the Coyotes) and Chris Mueller (free agent with Dallas). Defensemen Hal Gill (free agent to Philadelphia) and Jon Blum (signed by Minnesota) were also gone.
The structure for making the playoffs changed for the full season following that shortened schedule. The League was split into two divisions in each conference. The Eastern Conference had two eight-team divisions, the Western Conference two seven-team divisions. The top three teams in each division made the playoffs, along with two Wild Card teams in each conference. Previously, with three divisions in each conference, it was simply the best eight records that made it and they were seeded accordingly.
The Predators had to overcome a lot in 2013-14 – most notably the infection that hit goaltender Pekka Rinne after their second trip to Minnesota. He underwent surgery and was not available for the next 51 games. Somehow, they managed to go 21-21-9 without him and stayed in the race.
Nashville used four goaltenders during Rinne’s absence: Carter Hutton, Magnus Hellberg, Marek Mazanec and Devan Dubnyk. Hutton had only played in one NHL game before the season, but he fared well, going 13-10-4 with Rinne unavailable (and 20-11-4 overall). 22-year-old Magnus Hellberg played just a portion of one period. Mazanec, also 22 that season, was a very competitive 8-10-4 with 2.80 goals-against and .902 save percentage.
Dubnyk, acquired in a January trade with Edmonton (for summer free-agent signee forward, Matt Hendricks), bore no resemblance to the goaltender he has been this season with Arizona and (especially) Minnesota. In 124 minutes, he only stopped 85 percent of the shots he faced.
After Rinne returned, the Preds went 12-7-2, taking six of their final seven games to fall three points behind the Dallas Stars for the last playoff spot (with the Coyotes in-between). In circumstances like that, you realize that two more wins would have done the job.
The team was not offensively robust; finishing tied for 18th in goals, but did have four 20-goal men (Craig Smith 24, Shea Weber 23, Patric Hornqvist 22 and Mike Fisher with 20). Eric Nystrom was next with 15 (including the first four-goal game in team history, at Calgary).
That frustrating season brought about another rebuild, some of which included the maturation of the team’s younger players.
Hornqvist and Spaling were dealt to Pittsburgh at the Draft for sniper James Neal. Olli Jokinen was signed to help out at center. Shortly thereafter came the news that Fisher had ruptured his Achilles tendon; that resulted in a search for even more depth at center.
On July 15, Derek Roy signed a free-agent deal after his time with Buffalo, Dallas, Vancouver and St. Louis. On the same day, Mike Ribeiro was signed to a one-year contract after the Coyotes had bought him out.
Ribeiro remains, and he has been a key to the Predators offensive success, centering the first line. His smooth passing skills and poise have been a great help to his former Dallas teammate James Neal, along with the rookie sensation Forsberg and Craig Smith.
Fisher’s late-November (ahead of schedule) return to the lineup also provided a spark to both the powerplay and penalty kill. He centers the second line and should be credited a great deal for Colin Wilson’s first 20-goal season. On a per-game basis, this is Fisher’s best goal-scoring season (he previously had 25 for the Ottawa Senators in 2009-2010).
While the team’s offensive production has fallen off from a fast start, one thing that hasn’t changed over the course of the year is the team’s resilience. They have been particularly strong in games decided by one goal and there have been quite a few of those. As of this writing, 57.7 percent of their games have been decided by the slimmest of margins.
If anything became absolutely clear in this season’s success, it’s how important Pekka Rinne is. With apologies to the late Marvin (“The Human Eraser”) Webster of ABA/NBA fame, Rinne has been able to correct a number of mistakes and kept the team in the Top Five in goals-against all season.
And there are the reasons why this team made the playoffs!
Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile arrived in Nashville in 1997 to begin preparing the Predators to start play in the fall of 1998. By that time, he had already been established as a man who built his teams from the back (defense) to the front.
He brought Hockey Hall of Famers Rod Langway and Larry Murphy to Washington by trades and drafted Scott Stevens. Later, he traded for Calle Johansson and Al Iafrate. Those Washington Capitals teams got a lot of offense from their defense.
The same has happened in Nashville, almost from the start. However, this season’s Predators top six on defense is extra special in that they were all drafted (granted, one was reacquired in a trade) by the Predators.
Not many teams can make that claim. The breakthrough after the team’s expansion era came in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, held in Nashville. The Predators selected four defensemen in that draft that have played for them.
Ryan Suter (first round, seventh overall) played 542 games for the Preds before his free agent departure to Minnesota. In the second round, the Predators harvested Kevin Klein (37th overall) and Captain Shea Weber (49th overall). Klein played 403 games for Nashville before his (Jan. 22, 2014) trade to the New York Rangers, while Weber has notched 682 and counting. Also taken in the third round was Alex Sulzer (92nd overall), who played in 53 games for the Predators. Weber, Suter and Klein were the core of the Predators’ defense from 2006 through 2012.
Cody Franson, boyhood friend of Weber in British Columbia, was drafted two years later, taken in the third round, 79th overall, in 2005. He joined the other three on the blueline from 2009 through 2011, before he was traded to Toronto in July of 2011.
In 2009, the Predators selected two more members of the current defensemen. Ryan Ellis was a first rounder, (11th overall), taken from the Windsor Spitfires, where his coach was original Predator defenseman Bob Boughner.
Ellis spent two more award-winning seasons at Windsor after his selection, then made his first tentative steps as a pro in 2011-12, split between Milwaukee and Nashville. Last season, the light bulb seemed to fully illuminate for him, and from January 2014 going forward, he has begun to realize his potential.
Mattias Ekholm did not immediately come to North America after he was drafted by the Preds in 2009. He remained two more seasons in Sweden, had a difficult two-game trial with the Predators in 2011-12, and then finished back in Sweden. However, a strong 2012-13 season in Milwaukee prepared him for the transition and he has spent the past two seasons as a regular with the Predators. He has made a very large step forward this season.
At the 2013 Draft, it appeared the Predators were going to draft a forward. Heading into that selection meeting, the Predators had Seth Jones tabbed as the best player available. Poile thought there was no chance to land Jones, as the Preds were picking fourth. However, Colorado took center Nathan MacKinnon; Florida went for center Alexander Barkov, and Tampa Bay nabbed winger Jonathan Drouin.
It was at that point that Poile sprinted to the podium and took Seth Jones with the fourth pick. Poile had told reporters in a pre-draft meeting that he would indeed take Jones if such a scenario worked out, he also said he didn’t think there was anyway that it would.
When the Predators made their mid-February trade with Toronto to reacquire Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli, that gave the Predators six “homegrown” starters on defense. This group of defensemen, along with the play of Pekka Rinne and Carter Hutton, have the Predators in the Top Five defensively in the NHL this season. But as important as they are in their own zone, they are almost as important on the attack.
Since the team started, the defensemen have contributed as little as just over 12 percent of the team’s goals to 23.6 percent last season and 23.2 percent (through March 29) this time around.
Shea Weber has been the top goal-scoring defenseman each of the past six years and seven of the last eight. He and Roman Josi are currently tied for this season’s lead following Sunday's game. Last season, Weber (23) and Josi (13) combined for a team-record 36 goals by a tandem. This season with six games left, they have 30.
Weber has been his steady self, and Josi’s offense is on the upswing. And it’s all homegrown!
It’s a typical question when I meet with students: “What is your day like on a game day?” The next is: “How much time do you spend preparing for each game?”
The answer to the second question is very complicated for me, because just before a road trip, I may be preparing for several games at once, so it’s difficult to allocate time across the individual games. So let’s skip the second and concentrate on the first here.
(I will use a home game as my example here. Understand that on the road, there are busses to catch, bags to pack, etc. There are a number of variables always at play, so there is no real “typical” game day.)
On the day of a game, the first thing we have is a production meeting for the telecasts. This year they have been held at 9:45 a.m., before the team’s morning skate at Bridgestone Arena. In that meeting are producer David White, analyst Stu Grimson and reporter Lyndsay Rowley. At that point in time, we concentrate on our broadcast open, usually spending as much as 30 minutes to plan the opening four and a half minutes you see before the commercial prior to puck drop.
The topics may include a recap of the previous game, a look at where the team stands going down the stretch and a quick look at that night’s opponent. Usually, we choose one or two players to feature from both sides. Rowley may have an interview with one of the players that we incorporate as well.
Normally, I have recorded a “tease” the night before that runs at the top of the telecast. Thanks to today’s technology, I email that in to David White.
Sometimes, we aren’t so sure what approach we will take on the broadcast on a particular night, and then I record the tease following the meeting. (After we find a location with acceptable acoustics, of course.)
When that meeting (and possible recording) concludes, we work the hallways and/or go upstairs to catch a bit of the skate and see if there are any lineup changes in the works.
Back down in the hallways outside the dressing rooms, we trade information with the visiting broadcasters, make sure we have all of our game notes and start arranging our information in a format that makes each of us most comfortable as individuals. We get the chance to go into the dressing rooms to check in with some of the players and meet with the head coaches afterward as well.
For a 7 p.m. game, the latest we are done with this is usually around 12:30 – 1 O’clock.
That means time for lunch, and to go over my information, concentrating on refreshing my memory (and adding to it) of the visiting team. For a recent game with Buffalo on March 21, that meant going over my various spreadsheets:
Game day preparation sheets for viewing:
- New Jersey vs. Buffalo Lineups
- Nashville lineup from practice prior to Buffalo game
- Nashville year-by-year data
After I have gone over those, I can then begin filling in the updated information on my scoresheet, which was formulated many years ago in collaboration with Los Angeles Kings radio voice Nick Nickson.
At 5:30 p.m., Grimson and I record the “Ford Keys to the Game” for the Megatron (usually played around 6:45 – 6:50 p.m.). Around 6 O’clock, we get to see the video we will work with on the game open, then we clear the way for the pregame show and wait for our cue at 7 O’clock!
So many times during this season with the Nashville Predators, I have been asked to make comparisons of this year’s team to others.
First off, the most valid Predators team to use as a measuring stick would be the 2006-07 edition, which finished with 110 points. That team finished third overall in the NHL, scored a club-record 272 goals, was eighth in goals-against and third on the penalty kill.
With Peter Laviolette coaching the Preds, our study also has to include the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes. That was his first full season with Carolina, coming out of the lockout. Those Hurricanes also had the third-best record in the regular season, 112 points. They were third in the League in offense, but 17th on defense.
This season’s Predators have flirted with the best record in the League, and have a good balance between offense and defense, with Top Ten rankings in both areas.
Nashville had six 20-goal scorers in 2006-07: David Legwand and Jason Arnott tallied 27, Paul Kariya had 24, Steve Sullivan and Scott Hartnell each scored 22, and J-P Dumont had 21. We should note here that Nashville had a Hall of Famer nearing the end of his career in that lineup also, in Peter (no relation to Filip) Forsberg.
However, Steve Sullivan missed the last 25 games of that season with a back injury and did not return to the lineup until midway through the 2008-09 season. Martin Erat and Hartnell both had late season injuries as well. However, Alexander Radulov had 18 goals in 64 games after his promotion from the Milwaukee Admirals and then added three more in the playoffs.
The 2005-06 Hurricanes had six players score 20 goals or more, as 20-year-old Eric Staal led the way with 45 (and 100 points). Justin Williams and Rod Brind’Amour each added 31, Erik Cole had 30. Matt Cullen (you recognize that name) scored 25 and Cory Stillman pitched in 21. Late that season, the Hurricanes added veterans Doug Weight and Mark Recchi. That would be Weight’s first (and only) Stanley Cup and the second of three for Recchi - just another part of an incredible career for him. (He also won in 1991 with Pittsburgh and in 2011 with Boston).
The current edition of the Predators features four 20-goal men as of this writing. James Neal has 22, Filip Forsberg and Craig Smith have tallied 21, and Colin Wilson has 20. With over 10 games remaining, both Mike Fisher and Shea Weber have a shot at joining that group.
In 2006-07, Buffalo won the President’s Trophy with 113 points. Detroit also had 113, but had three fewer victories. With 51 wins, the Predators had the tiebreaker over Anaheim, also at 110 points. However, the three division winners in each conference had the top three playoff spots in order of points. Thus, second-place in the Central meant the Preds were the fourth seed in the West, setting up their ill-fated first-round series against fifth-seeded San Jose.
With two divisions in each conference now, the playoff set-up differs, in that they are based more on divisional standings. The two division winners in each conference are ranked first and second by points, and they face the eighth and seventh (respectively) finishers in the conference. Then the second and third teams in each division meet in the first round. That way, it is conceivable that one division in a conference could end up with five teams in the playoffs with just three from the other division making it.
There is a major difference in goal among the three teams in this study. The 2006-07 Predators had Tomas Vokoun leading the way until blood clots shortened his season after a 27-12-4 start with a 2.40 goals-against average. Chris Mason stepped in and went 24-11-4 with a 2.38 GAA. The Stanley-Cup champion ‘Canes had Martin Gerber in net for 38 regular season wins, but 21-year-old Cam Ward carried the load in the playoffs, playing 23 of the 25 games and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the postseason.
This season, Pekka Rinne has been dominant in goal, near the top of the NHL in wins, goals-against average, and save percentage.
Backing up the offensive firepower of the 2006 ‘Canes were Frantisek Kaberle (then 32) and Oleg Tverdovsky (29); Bret Hedican (35) and Mike Commodore (26), plus Niclas Wallin (30) and 1999 Preds draftee Andrew Hutchinson (the youngster of the group at 25). Veterans Glen Wesley (36) and Aaron Ward (32) were slowed by injuries in the middle of the season.
See: Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators lineups (Jan. 13, 2006)
This season’s Nashville defense has one returnee from 2007: Captain Shea Weber (now 29). Cody Franson is 27, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis are all 24. Seth Jones is 20. The depth players on defense are Anton Volchenkov (33) and Victor Bartley (27).
In the 2006 playoffs, the Hurricanes beat Montreal in six games, New Jersey in five, and needed seven games to dispose of Buffalo in the Eastern Conference Final. They took a 3-1 series lead in the Cup Final over Edmonton, but then lost in overtime in Raleigh, then were shutout in Game 6 in Edmonton. They then came back to take the Cup on home ice, 3-1 in Game 7.
The Predators’ 2007 postseason was almost over before anyone realized it. San Jose blew a two-goal lead in the first game, but then won in the second OT on a goal by Patrick Rismiller.
The Predators received two goals each from J-P Dumont and Peter Forsberg in Game 2’s 5-2 win and headed to San Jose tied at a victory apiece. Two wins in San Jose set up the Sharks to clinch in Nashville, and that’s what they did in Game 5.
The Sharks lost in six games against Detroit in the second round, then Detroit lost in the Western Conference Final to Anaheim. The Ducks went on to defeat Ottawa for the first Stanley Cup in California history.
What happens this time around for the Predators?
There’s only so much analytics and history can tell us, and I don’t think we can rely on them to accurately predict playoff outcomes. So just get set to take in the most intensely enjoyable time of the hockey season!
There are certain rivalries that get a sports fan’s heart to pump a little stronger than usual. For hockey fans in Middle Tennessee, that has been the Nashville Predators and the Detroit Red Wings.
That can be attributed to the large number of auto workers and their families who relocated here for the Nissan and Saturn plants years ago. They were the relocated Red Wings fans who effectively “seeded the clouds” for hockey in Music City.
In the beginning for the Preds, one of the “Original 27” NHL franchises, Nashville and Detroit met as many as eight times in a season, playing in the same division, the Central.
By definition, a rivalry is a competition. When it heavily tilts to one side, there may be competition, but it isn’t a truly heated one. When the Predators began in the fall of 1998, the Red Wings had won the previous two Stanley Cups. No team has won back-to-back titles since then.
However, Detroit has won two Cups (2002 and 2008) since the birth of the National Hockey League in Nashville, as have the New Jersey Devils (2000 and 2003), the Chicago Blackhawks (2010 and 2013) and Los Angeles Kings (2012 and 2014).
As the games between Nashville and Detroit began, it clearly was a case of Little Brother vs. Big Brother. In their first trip to Joe Lewis Arena, Mike Dunham faced 57 shots as the Red Wings took a 5-2 win.
As I’m sure you will recall our recent bout with ice storms here, there was a massive one just before the Predators’ first Christmas in the NHL. It hit the night before the Red Wings first visit to Nashville. This time, Detroit mustered 53 shots on Tomas Vokoun, who made 50 saves in a 5-3 Predators victory. That was the only win against Detroit in six games that season.
Nashville’s “rivalry” with Detroit began with the Predators going 2-9-1, including 0-5-1 at Joe Louis Arena. That made their first win against Detroit extra special. Let’s go to overtime on October 19, 2000.
That turned out to be the start of a two-game “winning streak” over the Red Wings, but it would be five more games after that before the Preds could mount a four-game unbeaten streak (2-0-2) against them – and that good stretch all began in Nashville on December 29, 2001:
Those victories truly stood out over the first five seasons in Predators’ history. Nashville went 6-16-5 against the Wings. Those seasons encompassed the last four of the legendary Scotty Bowman’s coaching career and another Stanley Cup title, so what would you expect from a start-up team?
Things took a decided turn for the better in 2003-04. The Predators won their first three games against Detroit that season, including their first-ever shutout win:
That was the start of the Predators making the playoffs for the first time. Their opponent, fittingly enough, was Detroit.
Detroit took the first two games at the Joe. It opened on April 7th.
On Easter Sunday afternoon, the Predators hosted a playoff game for the first time. It was a magical afternoon.
Adam Hall performed some heroics:
David Legwand got a shorthanded breakaway:
The noise was deafening...
And if that wasn’t enough – Tomas Vokoun had quite the Game 4…
At this point, you could actually call the Predators and Red Wings a rivalry and feel good about it. The series was even at two wins apiece. When the Predators arrived in Detroit for Game Five, a newspaper headline roared: “Panic in Hockeytown!”
Detroit Coach Dave Lewis switched goaltenders at that point, from Manny Legace to Curtis (“CuJo”) Joseph and took the next two to close out the series. Thanks to the lockout that cost the NHL the 2004-05 season, that was it for a while.
The first scheduled meeting of the teams out of that lockout was in November of 2005. The Predators scored early and had the lead, but the game would not be completed until January.
Here’s the story:
After that night, I never would have thought we would be talking about Jiri Fischer taking part in any game, but I am grateful he will join us for the Preds – Wings alumni match today!
To make up the suspended game, a home-and-home was changed to two back-back games in Detroit on January 23 and 24, 2006. The Predators were more than up to the task:
The Predators split their eight games with the Red Wings that year and finished with 106 points, but lost in the first round to San Jose.
The following year was the best in Predators’ history (at least until the current season). The team finished with 110 points. Perhaps the most dramatic win of that season came at home – 10 days after the Predators had acquired future-Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg from Philadelphia:
There have been so many incredible nights when these two teams have met. How about the night before Halloween in 2003: “Fight Night” on Broadway. Chris Chelios going after Scott Hartnell all night long, Steve Yzerman getting a game misconduct, and the Preds winning, 5-3? There was the night of the “Harmonic Convergence,” the last day of February 2009, when the Wings, outshot the Preds 30-23, yet Nashville won, 8-0.
In all, the Predators and Red Wings have met three times in the playoffs. In addition to the Red Wings run to their most recent Stanley Cup championship in 2008, they also met in 2012:
Beginning in 2013, the two teams have not met as frequently, as the Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference. Now the opportunity for more memories has been reduced to a pair of meetings per regular season. However, that seems to give each one even more weight.
The Nashville Predators make a very brief stopover in Buffalo on Sunday. Buffalo is a place which means a great deal to me on so many levels. In two different stints, I lived there for almost 20 years. I can’t thank the people there enough for my personal and professional development.
I was just a few years out of college, a die-hard fan of all sports, when I was hired by Public Radio station WEBR NewsRadio 970 as a sports reporter. I had already done a great deal of radio play-by-play of basketball and football, but the experiences I gained there were extremely valuable.
We had a two-man department with a part-timer and covered all home games of the NBA Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers), the NHL Sabres, and the NFL Bills. I went from watching those leagues to covering them professionally almost overnight.
The Braves had Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith and Ernie DiGregorio (along with his former Providence teammate Marvin Barnes), and for roughly one week, Moses Malone.
The Sabres featured the “French Connection Line’ of Rick Martin, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert, with Head Coach Floyd Smith and Hall of Famer Punch Imlach as the General Manager.
The Bills had O.J. Simpson (always a great interview) and his “Electric Company” offensive line leading the way, coached by the combustible Lou Saban.
Whenever we were finished covering the pro teams, we also had a play-by-play package of college games. Those had us doing Canisius College football, along with University at Buffalo hockey and basketball from Canisius, Niagara, St. Bonaventure, the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State University.
After a year at WEBR, we also started a regular sports talk show. Our first guest on “SportsLine 970” was Lackawanna’s Ron Jaworski, who had just been traded to the Philadelphia Eagles from the Los Angeles Rams.
What I learned during two years there helped prepare me to move on to Los Angeles, and three seasons working with another outstanding broadcaster and teacher in the Voice of the Kings, Bob Miller. Working with him, I learned how to prepare for a game. I took those lessons briefly to Seattle (with the NBA SuperSonics), then back to Buffalo and the beginning of my “freelance career.”
I signed on with the minor league baseball Buffalo Bisons for the 1983 season and had 13 delightful seasons with them. War Memorial Stadium (or “Knights Field” in the Robert Redford film “The Natural”) was home for the team through 1987. After that, the team moved downtown to a (still) beautiful park in 1988 – then known as Pilot Field, now Coca-Cola Field. The team became the second in the history of the minor leagues to draw over a million fans in one season, and then continued to do that for a number of years.
What to do in the baseball offseasons? I spent some time hosting Buffalo Sabres cablecasts and radio. Paul Wieland was the Communications Director (and sometimes practice goaltender) for the Sabres. A very creative man, he specialized in great April Fool’s pranks. I was fortunate enough to be part of one of his Classic April Fool’s telecasts:
While I always wished I could have done some time travel to go back and find out how crazy it must have been to work on the staff of Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” (with Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and others as writers), I doubt they could have had more fun than we did on that telecast.
During that period of time, I also was introduced to the love of my life, Claudia. We had friends in common who put us together before a January 27, 1985, game with the Quebec Nordiques and we went out after that game as part of a group. A young defenseman on that Buffalo team is now a Predators Assistant Coach (Phil Housley) and one of the team’s centers now does color on the Predators’ radio broadcasts (Brent Peterson). Who would have guessed that 30 years later we would all be together in Nashville?
While Triple A baseball and the NHL overlap a bit, there was still a gap in my schedule. The Buffalo Bills helped me out there. I did color for the broadcasts in 1983 and co-hosted a weekly cable show of the team’s highlights from 1983 through 1985. That was a challenge, as the team posted 8-8, 2-14 and 2-14 records. Then I also worked on the Bills pre- and postgame radio shows. On the postgame show, I felt like I had become “Western New York’s bartender,” as people cried on my shoulder when calling in.
All of that was preparation for the move to another radio station in the fall of 1988. Rich Products, which owned the Bisons, had purchased WGR Radio. They wanted me to be the Sports Director. It wasn’t long before the Bison games, followed by the Bills and Sabres, moved there. Later, we added University at Buffalo football and basketball, along with the Major Indoor Lacrosse League’s Buffalo Bandits. All of them became “instant hits.”
In 1988, the Bills rose from the doldrums and began a string of five AFC Title game appearances in six seasons, along with four trips to the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl run began with a 51-3 AFC Title game win over the Los Angeles Raiders on January 20, 1991.
The Buffalo Sabres then obtained a franchise in the Major Indoor Lacrosse League (now the National Lacrosse League) to occupy some dates in the Aud. It didn’t take long for them to capture a strong audience.
You may recognize a name there on the Bandits – John Tavares. He is the 46-year-old uncle of the New York Islanders Captain of the same name, and is the lacrosse league’s all-time leading scorer. The team started play in 1992 and won the championship each of their first two seasons, then two more afterward.
College basketball had been the premiere attraction in Western New York before the Bills, Sabres and Braves came to town. In the late 1980s, it began a resurgence. The University of Buffalo was part of that and I was lucky enough to call their games for WGR.
The Bulls moved from conference to conference, before gaining entry to the Mid-American (MAC) after I had left for Nashville.
By 1995, I wanted to get back to hockey full-time (after part-time work for the Sabres and their AHL team in nearby Rochester). The Sabres chose me to do their radio that summer, going into their final season at the Aud (where I had met Claudia). So, as I had in baseball, I closed out one facility and opened another, with no lack of excitement.
After the first season in Marine Midland Arena (later HSBC Arena, now the First Niagara Center) the Sabres decided to simulcast their games. Then I moved to the regional TV Network (Empire Sports Network) that carried their games, along with those of the Bisons and featured heavy Bills coverage. Little did I know at the time that when I covered the June 1998 NHL Entry and Expansion drafts in Buffalo that I was beginning my long association with the Nashville Predators!
Claudia and I still have many friends there and I usually go back for the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame ceremonies every summer. We are still in contact with the people we met with the various teams. It really was where we “came of age.”
A few days ago, a friend and former coworker who has been a life-long fan of the New York Islanders approached me. He asked if I would submit to an interview to talk about the performances this season by the Nashville Predators and Islanders in anticipation of the Preds’ last trip to the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. This was the result:
I should add that “Scoreboard Steve” had another obsession. Her name was Linda Fratianne.
Years ago, when Bob Miller and I were representing Los Angeles, Linda’s hometown, I think Steve gave us more details than some other broadcasters. I believe he was hoping we could help arrange a meeting with her.
However, I digress. There were many more memories that came back to me after participating in the interview.
My first time at the Coliseum came in December of 1972 – and it was for a basketball game: the ABA’s New York Nets (before they landed Doctor J. from the Virginia Squires) against the Utah Stars. They had Jim Chones, Billy “The Whopper” Paultz, Brian Taylor and John Roche. The Nets lost that one to Zelmo Beaty and company, and though the Islanders (along with Terry Crisp) had begun play that season, the building did not yet have a big scoreboard.
I had just finished my senior year in college when I saw that Nets game. I would not return to the Coliseum until 1978, when I went to work for the Los Angeles Kings, as the Islanders were beginning their emergence as a force in the National Hockey League.
That Islanders team won the President’s Trophy with 116 points, a point in front of the Montreal Canadiens. That season, the Canadiens wrapped up their fourth-consecutive Stanley Cup championship. The Islanders swept Chicago, and then lost in six games to the Rangers in the semifinals.
In 1980, the Islanders began their run to four-consecutive Stanley Cup titles and five-straight trips to the Cup Final. (I don’t think any team will ever win 19-consecutive playoff series again!) The Kings and Islanders met four times that season, the Islanders went 3-1-1 in the regular season and 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs. Their season ended in Game 6 of the Cup Final, as Eric Nystrom’s father, Bob, tipped in a pass from John Tonelli to win the Islanders’ first title in overtime.
During those four trips to the Coliseum that season, I got to meet so many great people. Fellow Notre Dame alumnus Tim Ryan was doing the TV play-by-play with ex-Bruin and Islander Eddie Westfall, handling the color. Westfall would handle that job through 1998, spending 14 seasons with another good friend, Jiggs McDonald.
Preceding Westfall was a WABC disk jockey, who wanted to get full-time into sports. That was George Michael. George’s dream was realized a few years later, as George would launch his Sports Machine:
That show did all right, airing in syndication from 1984 through 1997.
During that time, I spent a lot of time comparing notes with the Islanders broadcast host, Stan “the Maven” Fischler. Stan saw to it that I was introduced in the Coliseum pressroom to the team’s media consultant, former New York Herald-American baseball writer, Barney Kremenko.
For me, he always had a great story about his days as a baseball writer, covering Willie Mays and the Giants at the Polo Grounds, and the battles over the years with the Dodgers.
During that 1980 regular season, we did all of the Islanders games on television back to Los Angeles. For the post-game, I would go down to the penalty box and pick up a microphone and communication box so I could hear Bob Miller in the booth. We had a signal worked out with Islanders PR Man Hawley Chester III to request whom to send out to me for the interview.
Billy Harris had a great game that night, so I signaled for him. So I am in the on-camera position, facing upstairs before my guest arrives. Bob threw it to me. My microphone cable was very short, so I could not turn around to see who was skating toward me. I then made a huge mistake. I assumed I was getting the player I requested.
I began to introduce Billy Harris, running down his game that night, including the night he had enjoyed on the penalty kill. The skates stopped as I finished, I turned to my right having already asked the question of Billy. Problem was – Billy was on the Islanders’ telecast and they had sent me Wayne Merrick! We straightened that out in short order, but my face was in living-color red!
Those are the sorts of memories that will remain with me as the Preds play their last of nine games on Long Island. I’m certain another set of stories will be collected beginning next season at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
There’s no accounting for it, not that I can see. The word used most frequently to describe this season’s Nashville Predators has been “resilient.” It’s a team that seems to regularly bounce back like the Energizer Bunny.
We can study the numbers all we want and attempt to determine what they reflect. The fact of the matter is they do no more than state what has happened. The stats I see don’t provide the most important answer, the one to the greatest question of them all: “Why?”
In order to have a fairer look at these numbers, at least as they pertain to the Predators, I have decided to use their last four seasons in this study.
It’s a good mix of teams and success rates. In 2011-12, they were fifth in the League, finishing with 104 points. In the shortened 2013 season, they were 27th out of 30. Last season, they finished just out of the playoffs and this time around has been a fantastic ride to the top (or in the vicinity) of the League standings.
In 2011-12, the Predators were in the middle of the NHL pack – 15th – for winning percentage after allowing the first goal of the game. In 2013, they were 29th. Last season, they were 26th. So this time around, they are second, going 16-11-2 after allowing the first goal. This would seem to follow with the team’s overall ranking within the League in each particular season, right?
So that’s one level of “comeback ability,” allowing the first goal and still managing to win. The goal could come in the first minute of play, or the last 30 seconds. How about when trailing after two periods? That should be the more severe test.
Same sample seasons here. In 2011-12, the Predators were second to Pittsburgh, coming back to win seven times in 27 games, a winning percentage of 25.9 percent. Seven times that season, they trailed by three or more going into the third period and lost every one.
The very next season, they fell into a tie for last with Calgary, going 1-18-2! On five occasions in that shortened season, they trailed by 3 goals or more after 40 minutes of play. This is the best example of what I expressed earlier. That 2013 edition of the Predators was tied for 29th in coming back in the third period, 29th after allowing the first goal, 29th in League offense and 27th overall in the NHL standings!
Perhaps the team was just finding its own level, because in 2013-14, they were 26th in both overcoming the first goal of the game and when trailing after two periods. That squad allowed the first goal 46 times and won less than a quarter of those. They trailed 35 times after the second period and again faced a 3-goal-or-more deficit with 20 minutes left in regulation, losing each.
Now to the 2014-15 Predators: as of this writing, they are second in the NHL, winning 55.2 percent of the time after allowing the first goal. That aligns well with the Predators’ overall standing at the top of the League.
When trailing after two periods, twice they have been down four goals (at Detroit and at home vs. Anaheim) and dropped both. They most often have faced one or two-goal deficits this season. To this point, they are ninth in the League in this category, with a winning percentage of 21.4 percent.
Those are the facts, but there is more to it than that. It’s a feeling the players seem to have. A feeling that they are never out of any game, which helps feed their compete level.
It started early, giving up the first goal in the Season Opener against Ottawa, then coming back to win. Two nights later, the same thing happened against Dallas. Arizona and Chicago followed, and then they did it on the road in Vancouver. They were 5-2-1 after allowing the first goal and that was through their first 11 games of the season.
It’s almost as if they had proved something to themselves. This is a theme that has continued throughout the season. Against the Rangers early this month, Rick Nash provided the lead. The Predators came back with goals from Roman Josi and Shea Weber in a 40-second span to take the lead, then won, 3-2. The next afternoon, they were down two goals after two in South Florida and came back with two power-play goals to tie the score, then won in a shootout.
That was why the 4-0 lead the Ducks had after two didn’t convince many to leave Bridgestone Arena early. The Predators outshot the Ducks, 24-2 (one into an empty net) in that third period and had Anaheim on the run. James Neal’s power-play goal with 4:07 left pulled them within two goals and the building was almost as loud as it ever had been. Why? Because this team – and its fans – believe they are never out of it.
This has already been one of the most incredible campaigns of the Nashville Predators 17 seasons. Currently, this season's team is the best in franchise history with 76 points through 53 games (the 2006-07 version of the Predators had 75 with an equal number of contests played).
Only the 2006-07 team, the one that finished with 110 points, was ahead of this team’s pace.
You know many of the reasons for the team’s improvement: a (mostly) healthy Pekka Rinne; the improved attack, with Filip Forsberg, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and James Neal. But whatever you do, do not underestimate the contributions of Mike Fisher.
Yet, what did you expect from him after the early-July news that he had ruptured his Achilles tendon during offseason workouts?
After all, Fisher is 34-years-old and an Achilles injury is a very difficult ailment for even a young player to overcome. In parts of 11 seasons with the Ottawa Senators before his trade to Nashville in February of 2011, Fisher had four, 20-goal seasons. He has gone on to register two, 20-goal seasons in three full seasons here.
Fisher insisted all along that he would return earlier than any timetable would indicate. He began skating regularly with the team in November and was back for a game at Bridgestone Arena against the Edmonton Oilers on November 27th.
To that point in time, the club had really struggled on the power play (13.9 percent) and the penalty kill (75.9 percent). The team was playing one-goal games regularly (9-3-2 in the 21 games Fisher missed, two-thirds of the team’s games). The Predators managed 2.9 goals-for per game without him.
When he came back, things began to change. On the power play, Fisher began to play the role that Patric Hornqvist had played here for so many seasons, going to the front of the net to obscure the goaltender’s vision. In fact, one night in Anaheim, the Ducks Frederik Andersen was so frustrated, he wrapped his gloves around Fisher’s eyes! It didn’t take long for Fisher’s impact to be felt on the power play, as he leads the team with six power-play goals.
As a result of his efforts there, the power play has converted 17.6 percent of its chances. That isn’t Fisher’s only contribution to the special teams though. While Paul Gaustad and Eric Nystrom are usually the first forwards out on the penalty kill, Fisher and Calle Jarnkrok are usually up next. As a result, the penalty killers have killed off 81.5 percent of the opposing man advantages.
Overall, the team’s scoring is up on a per-game basis, from 2.90 per game to 3.14 per game. Fisher has also helped straighten out the depth chart at center. He has taken on the duties of second line center, allowing Jarnkrok to take the third line, with Gaustad the fourth.
Fisher has also helped Wilson realize his potential. Since Fisher took over the second line, Wilson has scored 13 of his 17 goals as well as 13 of his 19 assists. In addition, James Neal has scored 8 of his 17 goals, even though Neal has missed six games in that span.
Fisher hasn’t only played the role of set-up man, however. He has managed 13 goals in his 30 games. That’s a pace that would project to over 35 goals (25 goals is his career high) over the full 82-game schedule. If he could maintain that over the remaining games, he would finish with a career high 26 in just 61 games!
Fisher’s injury had another effect on the team. Shortly after it happened, the team being concerned about its depth down middle and signed free-agent, Mike Ribeiro. A tremendous playmaker, Ribeiro has spent most of the season centering the Predators top line, and Forsberg and Smith have benefited from that greatly.
Clearly, Fisher has made a remarkable recovery from what could have been a devastating injury to any athlete. The injury prompted the signing of another center who has more than met the expectations of him. Similarly, the return of Fisher has provided the team with a great spark. No one would have predicted that back in early July, but he is putting together what may turn out to be his career year!