Former University of Maine All-Americans Gustav Nyquist and Jimmy Howard will be in the land of the Grand Ole Opry Wednesday night when their Detroit Red Wings open their best-of-seven Western Conference Stanley Cup series against the Nashville Predators.
The Predators are the fourth seed and Detroit is the fifth seed.
Nyquist and Howard are two of four Black Bears involved in the playoffs.
The others are Los Angeles Kings left wing Dustin Penner and Ottawa Senators backup goalie Ben Bishop. Doug Janik played in nine regular season games for the Red Wings (1 assists) and could be recalled.
In addition, former Black Bear John Tortorella, who has already guided the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup title, will look to duplicate it as the head coach with the New York Rangers.
The Rangers are the top seed in the Eastern Conference and will host Ottawa beginning Thursday night.
It has been a memorable year for Nyquist, Howard and Bishop while Penner will try to rescue his season with a productive postseason after a forgettable regular season on and off the ice.
Penner scored seven goals and had 10 assists in 65 games after averaging 25 goals and 23 assists in his previous five seasons.
He was hampered by back spasms, one episode in January being triggered by preparing to eat his wife’s pancakes.
“I woke up fine, sat down to eat and it locked right up,” Penner told Rich Hammond of L.A. Kings Insider. “It never happened to me before. I couldn’t stand up.”
In late February, his wife, aspiring actress Jessica Welch, served Penner with divorce papers, citing irreconcilable differences.
Nyquist was recently named to the American Hockey League’s All-Rookie team with 22 goals and 36 assists in 56 games for the Grand Rapids Griffins.
He has played in 18 games with the Red Wings and has registered a goal and seven assists.
Howard was chosen to the NHL All-Star team and Bishop was traded by St. Louis to Ottawa where he filled in for the injured Craig Anderson and was playing regularly until sustaining a groin injury that kept him sidelined for two weeks.
Anderson has since returned to his starting role.
Bishop was 3-3-2 with a 2.48 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage and will serve as Anderson’s backup.
Howard said Nyquist’s development has been noticeable.
“He has been playing well. He’s definitely a player with a future in this organization,” said Howard. “The sky is the limit for him. He has great skill, he reads plays out there and he has really good speed. Once he figures out how to put it all together, he’s going to be really good.”
Howard is excited about the challenge of playing the Predators and their All-Star goalie Pekka Rinne, who was fourth in the Hart Trophy (Most Valuable Player) voting last season and leads the league in several categories including wins (43), games played (73) and saves (2,153).
The Red Wings and Predators split their six games this season.
“It’s going to be a close, tough series,” predicted Howard. “We’re going to have to stay out of the [penalty] box. They have the best power play in the league [21.7 percent]. And Rinne is one of the best goalies in the league so we’re going to have to go to the dirty areas [in front of the net] to score.”
Howard said he and Rinne developed a friendship from playing together at an AHL All-Star game and playing against each other in the AHL and NHL.
“He’s a great guy. He’s really humble. He has an unbelievable catching glove. He’ll even reach across his body [to catch the puck]. He’s such a competitor. It’s going to be really fun to play against him,” said Howard, who lives in Dedham on Green Lake in the off-season with wife Rachel [Miller].
Rachel gave birth to their first child, James Russell Howard IV, in the fall.
“Being a dad is a lot of fun,” said Howard. “[The baby is] so happy. He’s always smiling and laughing.”
Despite suffering a broken index finger on his blocker hand and a groin pull, Howard had his best goals-against average (2.12) in his three seasons as a starter. It was the league’s sixth-best GAA. His six shutouts were also a career single-season high.
In addition, Howard enters the playoffs on a nice roll after posting a 1.92 GAA and a .927 save percentage in his last five starts.
“I’m healthy, I feel good. Nothing is lingering,” said Howard, who has won 109 regular season games the past three seasons. “I’m anxious to get started.”
He said the Predators have lots of weapons and are deeper than they have ever been.
Forwards like Alexander Radulov, Mike Fisher, Martin Erat, David Legwand, Sergei Kostitsyn and Patric Hornqvist will really challenge him.
“Their top six forwards are very dangerous now,” he said.
But his team is healthier than it has been in quite a while and the team played well down the stretch.
“I feel really comfortable [with the way the team played],” said Howard.
Nashville, according to Howard, is a “fun place to play.
“It’s so loud. The fans have come a long way. They really understand the game now so it’s gotten real enjoyable to play there,” said Howard.
Three former Black Bears didn’t make the playoffs.
Right wing Teddy Purcell had a breakthrough season for the Tampa Bay Lightning, collecting 24 goals and 41 assists for 65 points, all career-highs.
He had a hat trick in the season finale, including the overtime game-winner in a 4-3 win over Winnipeg.
Teammate Brett Clark, a defenseman, had 2 and 13 in 82 games but Minnesota Wild defenseman Mike Lundin had an injury-riddled season, appearing in only 17 games with two assists.
Three other former Black Bears were involved in management for nonplayoff teams.
Bangor resident and former Maine defenseman Jack Capuano went 34-37-11 as the coach of the New York Islanders and ex-Black Bear goalie Garth Snow is their general manager.
And former Maine defenseman Dave Nonis, the senior vice president and director of hockey operations for the Toronto Maple Leafs, saw his team go 35-37-10.