NASHVILLE – The Minnesota Wild arrived here early enough on Friday to get in a practice at Bridgestone Arena. That meant for defenseman Ryan Suter, who left the Predators in July as a free agent to sign with Minnesota, it was his first opportunity to step on the ice that he called home for his first seven seasons in the NHL.
Suter, a cool customer on and off the ice, said the experience made him more nervous than he thought it would.
On Saturday, he prepared to play his first game against his former team in his former city and the strange feelings abounded. For example, at a team dinner on Friday, his former neighbor coincidentally happened to be at the same restaurant and came over to Suter and tapped him on the back to say hello.
Suter said he has plenty of great memories from his playing days in Nashville, which included advancing to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the last two seasons along with earning his first All-Star Game appearance last season. Also, in 2003 the NHL Draft was held in Nashville when the Predators took Suter seventh overall and a banner still commemorates the occasion.
As excited as he is to be with his new team, Suter said he has mixed emotions about the game Saturday, even though he knows some fans will not exactly give him a warm greeting for his decision.
"I think it'll be kind of a mixed bag," he said. "Some fans understand. Obviously, some fans don't. That's their right. They can cheer or boo or do whatever. I'm not focused on that."
What he is focused on is winning, as are the Predators. The Predators entered the day with 25 points in 24 games, one point out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference while Minnesota has 24 points in 22 games.
Suter is not the type to show it, but Saturday certainly is shaping up as an emotional game. Predators backup goalie Chris Mason recalled the first time he left Nashville and returned as a member of St. Louis. It's one of his stronger memories as a player.
"I had no expectation," he said. "I didn't think it would be easy or hard. Looking back, you play so many games. There's not many games where you can vividly remember the day, let alone the game, let alone the night before, but I'll never forget that day.
"That was one experience I'll never forget, for sure."
Nashville already has played the Wild twice in Minnesota, so the Predators players and coaches have had their opportunity to exorcise whatever emotions they might have had about playing their former friend and teammate, as has Suter.
But Nashville's vocal fans have yet to vent their emotion at Suter's not-so-happy homecoming. They can give those feelings voice on Saturday.
"I think every coach, every player -- when it's an emotional game at the end of the game you feel like something happened," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "Just as a fan, you see games that are very emotional, you get attached to that. It's no different. That's what makes sport great. That you can emotionally grab onto something in sport, be it football, hockey whatever."
While the points in the standings are significant, so is winning an important game for a teammate. Players and coaches are loath to say that one game is any more important than another, but in some ways, this game is sort of like that act on the ice when one player challenges another. In hockey, being a good teammate means standing up for a teammate in such a situation.
"I think we've got a group that cares for each other and they want to help each other out," Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. "This is going to be an important game to our team, this is going to be an important game to Ryan. I think it's important that we as a team come out and give him a great effort."
Since signing the contract worth $98 million over 13 years, Suter has shown his worth. His 14 assists tie him for fourth by a defenseman in the League. At 0.68 points per game, he is on a career-best pace. Suter said when the Wild struggled to score early, he decided to pick up that part of this game.
In Nashville his defense partner was Shea Weber, who has finished as runner-up for the Norris Trophy each of the last two seasons. Weber's 19 goals tied for the League lead by a defenseman last season and much of Nashville's power play, and offense, run through him. Weber's 10 power-play goals last season also were the most by a defenseman.
Suter said he doesn't think his on-ice role is much different in Minnesota – "I'm one of the leaders of the team like I was here in Nashville," he said, "I don't think it's that much different at all" – but it does appear to differ.
"As far as what we're doing on the power play, almost all of it goes through him," Yeo said of Suter. "He's the eyes back there and he's the guy that, he's got that ability to distribute the puck. He makes his plays with his head up. He gives guys pucks in situations where they can do something with it, but he also has the ability to recognize a lane to the net and he's willing to shoot it and he's got a great shot and gets it through so he's a very important part for us back there."
In playing that role for the Wild, Suter's grace and poise on the ice surely will be familiar to the Bridgestone Arena fans. What won't be familiar is the green and red colors he'll be wearing and that will bring forth the emotion.
"That's what I love about our sport," Trotz said. "People can attach to the work ethic and the physicality and the speed and all the ups and downs of a game. That's what makes our sport special."
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