Leafs winger Kris Versteeg got a good long look at the Nashville Predators last season, facing them 10 times including a six-game playoff battle that was perhaps the Blackhawks toughest test last spring.
He said he knows what to expect tonight at the ACC from a team that has surprised many clubs around the league.
"They're the hardest team to play against in the league when I was in Chicago," Versteeg said. "They're a team that is resilient on every puck. It feels like sometimes there's six guys out there [for them] You've got to move the puck quick and try to out work them.
"Beyond their patience, they're a pretty hard-working team. You don't find many harder working teams than them."
Several members of the Leafs also commented on how the Predators manage to get so much out of so little.
"You look at what they've been able to spend, what they've been able to do, it's pretty remarkable," Versteeg said. "They've got a coach in there that the guys believe in over the past few years and that's what got them into the playoffs last year."
Preds coach Barry Trotz, meanwhile, was in fine form today talking to reporters about his team, going on at length about what's made them successful in recent years. He also offered his thoughts on the Leafs struggles, which have seen them win only once in their last 12 games.
"They're going to be a better group when they come out of this," Trotz said. "Ron's a great coach, he's been in the West a long time, I've had some battles with him. He's a very, very good coach. They'll come out of it. They've got a good team: They're fast up front, have got some solid defencemen and Giguere in net."
There won't be any changes to Toronto's lineup, with Luca Caputi and Carl Gunnarsson again scratched. Jean-Sebastien Giguere will start again for the Leafs, his 12th start in 17 games. I'm a bit surprised at how heavily Ron Wilson has leaned on him so far, but then again, the coach is likely looking for as many wins as possible and believe Giguere's the one who can deliver.
Pekka Rinne gets the start for the Preds. He has played well overall this season but recently had three tough starts on the road. Nashville started the season 5-0-3 and have been in a bit of a tailspin since, going 2-5-0.
"We found out a lot about our character and who drives what," Trotz said. "And what our backbone's like. If everything comes easy, then you never really find out anything about yourself. When things are hard, you find out a lot about the group. Sometimes a little adversity early in the season can go a long way."
Belak's last hurrah
Former Leafs tough guy Wade Belak is now a Predator, but won't get into the lineup tonight (as has often been the case this year). He said today he knows he's winding down his career and wants to stay in Nashville with his family.
Belak is 34 years old and has played 538 career games played.
"I'm to the point now where we've made Nashville home and my kids are in school, my wife's got a business there and I'm just kind of sticking around," Belak said. "I'm just happy to be back this year. I thought maybe last year would have been my last year, but they brought me back, which was a huge honour. I only played 39 games last year and coming into this year, I knew I wasn't going to play that much and I was fine with it.
"Any way I can help out the team and be around the guys and make the mood a little light out here, take away the tension and help the young guys get through because we do have a bunch of new guys. You do need the veteran guys on the team. Hopefully I can rub off some of my brilliance and greatness and knowledge of the game to these young kids."
Phaneuf on the mend
Wilson offered an update on captain Dion Phanuef, who is recovering from a deep skate cut suffered to his leg against the Senators on Nov. 2.
"He's walking now, with a slight limp," Wilson said. "Barely even noticable. Hopefully within the next week he'll be able to get back on the ice. Again I'm not a doctor. It all depends on how [he heals] He's already had the staples removed so the actual cut on the outside has healed and now it's waiting for all the things he cut on the inside to heal up. He'll rebuild his strength and get back out there."
Phaneuf remains on track for a return in the next two to four weeks. He'll be in the Leafs dressing room prior to tonight's game, presumably to help pump up his teammates.
Wilson's long wait
The Leafs coach has been on the verge of passing Jacques Lemaire on the all-time coaching wins list for a while now, sitting one back in eighth place with 587 since Toronto's last win back on Oct. 26. Wilson has coached more games than all but five others in league history (Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Dick Irvin, Pat Quinn and Mike Keenan).
He was asked today about if he takes the Leafs recent struggles home with him.
"Well I don't read the paper or watch sports or listen to talk radio but yes you do question everything you do, you're human," Wilson said. "But it's not what other people are thinking, it's what you're thinking yourself. Nobody wants to have not won a game in eight [in a row] So you do bring that stuff home and think about it."
MacArthur - Grabovski - Kessel Kadri - Bozak - Kulemin Sjostrom - Brent - Versteeg Orr - Mitchell - Brown
Kaberle - Schenn Beauchemin - Komisarek Aulie - Lebda
Hornqvist - O'Reilly - Sullivan Dumont - Legwand - Ward Erat - Goc - Tootoo Kostitsyn - Smithson - Wilson
Suter - Weber Bouillion - Klein Franson - O'Brien