Here we go.
Three words seldom carry so much weight, but for the Blue Jackets tonight, it’s part sigh-of-relief and part nervous excitement. Columbus opens its 2011-12 NHL season at home against the Nashville Predators, one of their most notable division rivals.
The Blue Jackets took their traditional morning skate today in preparation for tonight’s game, taking one final warm-up and walk-through before the first chapter of their next journey. Coaches and players sometimes think differently during the course of a game, but their thoughts are essentially aligned when it comes to being nervous on opening night.
Veterans, rookies, Blue Jackets debuts… tonight will have it all. Six players will don the union blue sweater for the first time and that includes the club’s three rookies: Cam Atkinson, David Savard and Ryan Johansen.
|COACH ARNIEL AUDIO|
Regardless if it’s your first game or 500th game, the butterflies find a way into the stomach.
“Opening night is always special,” center Samuel Pahlsson told BlueJackets.com. “We feel really good about ourselves this year. Our organization has taken a few steps forward and we’re anxious to get going.”
This will be Pahlsson’s third opening night game at Nationwide Arena, but his first against a fairly heated rival.
“(Rivalries) happen when you play them six times a year,” Pahlsson said of the Predators. “Of course, it’s a little extra, but it’s the first game and everyone’s going to be on top of it.”
Center Derick Brassard, always one of the jubilant players on the Blue Jackets roster, is admittedly nervous before every game – but that’s mostly out of anticipation. Like many of the players who we spoke to this morning, Brassard said that all opening nights are special, but given the active offseason of the Blue Jackets, tonight will carry some added excitement.
“Ever since I started playing hockey, whether it’s midget or junior, (opening night) is very special to me,” Brassard told BlueJackets.com. “You’ve been waiting all summer for that one game; you know it’s going to be sold out and the fans are excited.”
THE LEADERSHIP GROUP
Everyone knows that Rick Nash wears the captain’s “C” for the Blue Jackets, but until this morning, the rest of the alternate captains remained under wraps.
The club announced that R.J. Umberger will continue to wear an “A” for every game, and the other will rotate between centers Jeff Carter and Antoine Vermette, and defenseman James Wisniewski. The letters will debut tonight.
One other uniform adjustment made this year by the NHL is the addition of numbers to the front panel of player’s helmets. This measure was instituted in the offseason to aid broadcasters and off-ice officials in identifying players throughout the course of games.
Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel has mentioned that this year’s training camp and preseason has been a bit more relaxing than his NHL coaching debut last year. One year ago, he and the team were in Stockholm, Sweden, taking part in the NHL’s Premiere event against the San Jose Sharks.
The former NHL player still gets the childish excitement like his players on opening night, but once the puck drops shortly after 7 p.m. tonight, he will be in business mode.
“(The offseason) has got everybody sort of pumped up,” Arniel said this morning. “Hopefully, I just have to open the doors and let the dogs run tonight.”
On the Nashville side, coach Barry Trotz will bring his defensive style back for a 13th season behind the Predators bench. The anchors on his blue line, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, are back as well and they are led in goal by Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne.
“At home, you try not to put on a show; you want to try to get to your systems and style of play as fast as you can,” Arniel said. “But you know the emotion will be there.”
The Predators will be without center Mike Fisher (IR) for tonight’s game, but regardless of personnel, they bring out the best in the Blue Jackets.
“We’ve had some issues with (Nashville) over the past few years,” Brassard told BlueJackets.com. “But I think we’ve got the team to give them a good run this year."
Season Series: First of six meetings this season between these Central Division rivals. The Predators took four of six from the Blue Jackets in 2010-11, although Columbus won two of the three games played at Nationwide Arena.
Nashville captain Shea Weber led his team in scoring with 2 goals and 6 points, while Antoine Vermette had 3 goals and 6 points and RJ Umberger had 1 goal and 6 points to pace Columbus. Pekka Rinne played every minute in goal for the Predators, posting a 2.14 goals-against average and .929 save percentage, while Steve Mason had a 2.16 GAA and .913 save percentage in making five of six starts for the Jackets.
Big Story: Nashville has qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in six of the past seven seasons, while Columbus has just one postseason berth in the franchise's history. But the Blue Jackets did some restructuring during the offseason, making a gigantic trade with the Flyers to acquire forward Jeff Carter, who gives them an elite scorer to pair with captain Rick Nash. They also gave a big contract to defenseman James Wisniewski, but he'll be ineligible to play due to an eight-game suspension for an illegal check during the preseason.
Predators: Stability has been the name of the game for a franchise that has employed one GM (David Poile) and one coach (Barry Trotz) in its 12 NHL seasons. If it ain't broke, why fix it, and Nashville comes off a season in which it not only made the playoffs once again in an ultra-competitive Western Conference, but won its first playoff series against Anaheim. Coming off an excellent preseason in which the Predators won seven of eight, they'll look to get off to a quick start in the division with road games on consecutive nights against Columbus and St. Louis.
"We have a lot of depth on a very young roster," Poile said. "We have 30 guys who can play for us."
Blue Jackets: When Columbus made it to the playoffs in the spring of 2009, the franchise seemed poised to take the next step in becoming an annual contender. But it turned out to be one step forward and a couple steps back, leading to an eventful past summer in which young forward Jakub Voracek was shipped out in the deal that brought Carter back, and veterans like Vinny Prospal and Radek Martinek were also added to the mix. Second-year coach Scott Arniel came out of training camp pleased with the roster he'll be taking into opening night.
"All the young guys that we've talked about -- the forwards that are fighting for spots as well as the defensemen -- they've played well and it's been good," Arniel said.
"We wanted a competitive camp; I really like the competition in our team this year."
Who's Hot: The Predators' power play connected in four consecutive games to close the preseason, a positive sign for a team that often struggles to generate offense. The power play ranked 26th in the League last season. … Mason stopped 113 of 121 shots for a .934 save percentage in winning all four of his preseason starts for the Blue Jackets.
Injury Report: Nashville forward Mike Fisher will start the season on injured reserve following offseason shoulder surgery, as will defenseman Francis Bouillon, who has a concussion. … Columbus forward Kristian Huselius is out indefinitely after pectoral surgery. Mark Dekanich, acquired from Nashville to be the backup goalie, is on injured reserve with an ankle sprain. As a result, Curtis Sanford made the team. Forward Jared Boll is on injured reserve with a broken thumb. Forwards Matt Calvert (groin) and Tomas Kubalik (concussion) are day-to-day.
Stat Pack: Martin Erat and Sergei Kostitsyn each finished with 50 points last season to lead the Predators in scoring. Kostitsyn had a team-high 23 goals. … The Blue Jackets were a solid faceoff team last season, winning 51.2 percent of their draws to tie with the Devils for eighth in the League.
Puck Drop: Carter scored 46 goals three seasons ago and played in the Stanley Cup Final the following spring. He joins a locker room full of promising talent that hopes to put it all together and turn Columbus back into a playoff team.
"There's an excitement in the room that you can feel," Nash told the Columbus Dispatch. "Look around. We've got guys who have done it before, and that's a good feeling."