NASHVILLE – It is a fitting coincidence that Phoenix Coyotes right wing Martin Erat will play his 800th NHL game Thursday.
It will also be Erat's first game back in Nashville against the organization with which he suited up for his first 723 games.
Two years ago, Erat played for the Nashville Predators against the Phoenix Coyotes in the Western Conference Semifinals. Thursday, the teams play with the Coyotes hoping to earn the conference's second wild-card spot. If they win their last three games, they will be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said center Martin Hanzal (lower-body injury) will remain out, as will goalie Mike Smith (lower-body). Tippett said it remains unknown whether Smith, who is practicing, will be able to play in one of the final two games.
"I don't know," Tippett said. "It all depends. It's too tough to gauge. Every day it seems like he's a little bit better and more confident but he's got to be functional before he can jump into a game, and when we figure if he's functional, then we'll revisit whether he's playing or not."
It's been a strange 14 months for Erat, who is on his third NHL team in that span. A player with 511 NHL points, he has three goals and 24 assists in 67 games this season, including two goals and one assist in 14 games with Phoenix since arriving prior to the NHL Trade Deadline.
"I'm not looking in the past," Erat said. 'I'm focusing on what's in front of me right now. I've got three games to help Phoenix get to the playoffs and that's what I'm focusing on."
Erat requested a trade last year and the Predators accommodated him, sending him to the Washington Capitals with forward Michael Latta for forward prospect Filip Forsberg, but family has remained in Nashville. Erat again requested a trade this season and was on the move before the deadline for a second year in a row.
In February, his second child was born. A few weeks later, the wife of former Predators teammate Patric Hornqvist also gave birth. The wives are close, and Erat said they went through the trials and tribulations of having a newborn together.
"It feels nice to be able to come here and actually see my family," Erat said. "I didn't see the baby for long. It's great to be in the city, see all the guys. It's going to be fun."
Erat spent time after the Coyotes' morning skate talking to members of the Predators equipment staff and coaching staff, and received a warm embrace from Predators goalie Pekka Rinne.
Predators coach Barry Trotz said defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who was a healthy scratch for the past two games, would likely get back in the lineup. That means defenseman Victor Bartley could be scratched.
Here are the projected lineups:
Matt Cullen - Mike Fisher - Patric Hornqvist
Gabriel Bourque - Calle Jarnkrok - Craig Smith
Rich Clune - Paul Gaustad - Eric Nystrom
Nick Spaling - Colin Wilson - Viktor Stalberg
Roman Josi - Shea Weber
Mattias Ekholm - Ryan Ellis
Michael Del Zotto - Seth Jones
Scratched: Victor Bartley
Mikkel Boedker – Antoine Vermette – Shane Doan
Lauri Korpikoski – Mike Ribeiro – David Moss
Martin Erat – Kyle Chipchura – Radim Vrbata
Rob Klinkhammer – Jeff Halpern – Brandon McMillan
Oliver Ekman-Larsson – Zbynek Michalek
Chris Summers – Derek Morris
Keith Yandle – Michael Stone
Scratched: Brandon Gormley, Paul Bissonnette, Connor Murphy.
Injured: Mike Smith (lower body), Martin Hanzal (lower body), David Schlemko (lower body).