Last night Tampa Bay got scratched, out-matched and detached from the conceit that sixty minutes on the ice in Nashville was going to be easy. Like many teams who have encountered the Predators during their hot streak, the Lightning learned the hard way that when you tug on the smilodon’s tail, you’re likely to pull back a clawed, bloodied stump. To be fair, Tampa Bay got in some hits of their own and the officiating reflected all the integrity of a Noriega-era customs agent on third shift banana duty, but still, the Predators fought their way to victory with seven goals.
Casual observers of the club who are tuning in late may be wondering what happened. After all, it’s the Predators. You know, that group of laconic nice guys who take hits and are polite enough to pass the puck to guests, right? Um, no. After a shaky start that made it seem like the boys in Mustard and Blue laundry were going to live down to expectations, the system kicked in and things started falling into place. Players got healthy, head coach Barry Trotz got bolder about mixing up the lines and infusing new blood in with the seasoned talent to see what would work and the old guard is starting to show the maturity and smart play that fans have been hoping for.
So what’s in store for the rest of the year? Fans, friends and relations of the Cool Cats are hoping the trend continues. Last year’s dependable grinders are maturing into seasoned players. There has been marked improvement in everybody starting with an A line that has come back harder and leaner and more focused. We’re seeing edgier, more creative play from Joel Ward and Jordin Tootoo. Along with the welcome addition of Marcel Goc and the return of Ryan Jones and Francis Bouillon, we are also seeing a crop of shiny new kids who will keep the team on an upward trajectory that should continue well into the next few seasons.
Everyone at the Predators front office loves to talk about how the team “is about character, not characters.” Fine. Even though I’m not a huge fan of the fights, it has been nice to see someone other than Tootoo and Belak carrying the load of teaching lessons and sending messages. The great thing is that most opponents still aren’t expecting it. Downie versus Weber resulted in an epic smackdown. You got his attention Stevie. I hope it was worth it. I have a ball peen hammer to sell you if you ever get the urge to do anything that stupid again, like, oh, I don’t know… smack Godzilla on the ankle? When Malone poked Smithson with his stick and he turned around you just know what flashed through the mind of that poor wonk from Florida: “Oh shoot, its thinking!”