This might just be the most anticipated exhibition game in franchise history.
Following a pause to games that lasted four months, the Predators will face an actual opponent on Thursday when they meet the Dallas Stars at Rogers Place in Edmonton (at 3 p.m. CT; watch: FOX Sports Tennessee, NHL Network; listen: 102.5 The Game). The contest is Nashville's lone tune-up before they begin their best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifier series against Arizona on Sunday, a single chance to put all of their work over the past two-and-a-half weeks to fruition.
And for all of the additional nuances that come with living in a bubble to protect from COVID-19, the Preds are simply ready to play hockey once again.
"Very excited," Preds goaltender Pekka Rinne said. "Hopefully, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us. We all live in very special times right now, so I'm just very impressed by the NHL, by everybody putting everything together and giving us a chance to compete and play a hockey game. I'm very excited and looking forward to the playoffs."
The Predators have been hard at work preparing for the challenges ahead, including two weeks of Training Camp Presented by Vanderbilt Health in Nashville and another three days of practice in Edmonton. The intensity of those sessions has ramped up on each occasion, a necessity when preparing to play another NHL club for the first time since April.
Some have questioned whether it might take some time for players to get back up to full speed when it comes to game situations and what exactly the quality of play will entail. That's not a concern in the Nashville room, and the Predators don't expect much of a lag once the puck drops Thursday.
Video: Arvidsson, Johansen and Grimaldi preview the Stars
"Guys have missed hockey, the competitiveness, the aggression, and we're all excited," Preds Associate Captain Ryan Ellis said. "You can see it in our practices, you can see the intensity and I'm sure the games will have an even higher level."
"It'll be very high," Nashville forward Filip Forsberg said. "Just based on our camp we had down in Nashville, it was really high intensity from Day One. And I think the quality of everybody's play has been great, and I expect nothing else from any of the other teams too… I expect everybody to be at their best."
That ferocity will be helped by a natural rival acting as the opposition in the exhibition. Meetings with the Stars were amplified when the two met in the playoffs for the first time in 2019, before they took it outdoors in the 2020 NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day.
Two of Nashville's final three games before the pause back in March also came against Dallas - both shutout wins for the Preds - and the clubs are plenty familiar with one another, a fact that should make the feeling-out process virtually nonexistent.
"When you see you're going to play a rival in an exhibition, we know it's going to be a rough game and intense game," Predators centerman Ryan Johansen said. "But at the same time, we're trying to get ready for playoff hockey, so in a way it's a good thing that we're going to jump right into this competitive, intense game. That's probably speaking for all our guys - that's our mindset now. We're going to go out there, and it's going to help us be playoff ready more than say another team that we're not such rivals with."
Video: Coach Hynes previews first game in four months
While Thursday's game against Dallas won't help or hurt the Preds in the postseason standings, its value is still immeasurable when it comes to prepping for that first contest that will count on Sunday (Game 1 vs. Coyotes at 1 p.m. CT; watch: FOX Sports Tennessee, USA Network; listen: 102.5 The Game).
For that reason, this deserves to be the most anticipated exhibition game in franchise history, and the Predators can't wait for puck drop.
"We just feel like as an organization we're moving in the right direction," Preds Head Coach John Hynes said. "There's been a lot more continuity, and we really tried to use the pause to be able to stay together as a team, to iron some things out and to get to know each other better. All those things are all positives, now it's just a great opportunity for us to finish up here now with some really strong practices, a good exhibition game and let's let it rip on Sunday and get right into it."