If tonight’s showdown between the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks could be summed up in one word, it would be: first.
It’s the first game of the 2016-17 season for the Predators. It’s the first game of a new era in Predators hockey. It’s the first regular season game in a gold sweater for P.K. Subban, as well as the first opening night in Nashville without Shea Weber since 2006.
In his seventh season in the NHL, Subban is not taking this night for granted.
“If you’re taking any game for granted, you don’t deserve to play in this league,” he said at practice on Thursday. “A lot of people would do a lot of different things to be able to be a professional athlete and play professional hockey.”
“It’s a privilege to play in this league. I think I can firmly speak for everybody that nobody takes their job for granted. It starts tomorrow. It’s the opening game, and they’re always the most exciting.”
Subban will be wearing the number 76 on a different team’s sweater for the first time in his career after the June trade that sent him from Montreal to Nashville in exchange for Shea Weber. Tonight, it will be the first real chance for him to show how he fits into head coach Peter Laviolette’s system.
For Laviolette, Subban is just that: a good fit.
“We play a certain style,” he said Thursday. “We play a certain way. He can skate and he can move the puck. We’re trying to promote that with everybody. There are no changes, no special set of rules for anybody on the ice. He’s looked really good. We’re excited to have him here. He’s just got to fit in and be a piece of the puzzle.”
At the end of training camp, Laviolette paired Subban with Roman Josi after he returned from the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. However, he wasn’t ready to give that pairing his complete blessing, pumping the brakes on the permanence of the duo.
“Roman wasn’t here, and P.K. was out, so I don’t have a lot to go on,” he said after morning skate. “They looked good in one game. It’s a starting point for us, but I don’t have a lot of background on that pair.”
Subban’s first test as a Predator will be against the rival Blackhawks. While Subban has played in some intense rivalries in his career, he said he’s going to keep a level head tonight.
“It’s hockey,” Subban said. “Intensity is non-negotiable, whether it’s a rivalry game or not. If you don’t play with a certain level of intensity, it’s hard to have success in this league. I look forward to preparing like I would for any other first game.”
It’s another first tonight for forward Kevin Fiala, as he plays on opening night for the first time. He’s played in six regular season games and one playoff game for the Predators, but this is the first time he’ll take the ice as a member of the Predators to start the season.
After taking three years to develop with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals, Fiala is ready and will likely play with some talented company on the top forward line.
Laviolette said that placement has been well-earned.
“He’s been great,” Laviolette said of Fiala on Thursday. “We played him with some good players and he’s done a terrific job. He’s been a noticeable player in games and in practices and he’s going to get an opportunity to show what he can do. He’s earned it, and so we’re going to give him the opportunity.”
Fiala, who has one goal in his short NHL career so far, said he worked on his footwork this summer to make sure he never remained stationary on the ice. He also said he’s nervous for his first opening night, but he’s trying to quell them and give it his all.
Laviolette admitted that he’s not expecting perfection from Fiala right off the bat.
“I’m sure there will be mistakes, but I can also assure you that he won’t be the only one that makes a mistake tonight,” he said. “What I’ve really liked about Kevin is his work ethic. He’s really played hard, practiced hard, and with that, he’s looked good with the people we put him with. As long as he maintains that work ethic and that focus, we can always fix those things.”
The rookie found out he made the NHL roster this week, and was thrilled.
“I was so happy,” he said. “I had a big smile on my face and I was so happy that I did it. But, I want to keep working every day to stay here.”
As for his expectations tonight, his answer was simple.
“We want to win. I want to win tonight.”