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Bury those hard feelings: With Rads aboard, the Stanley Cup isn't a Preds pipe dream

The Counterfeit Traitor

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It is a rare Tuesday that the Predators sell out. It's rarer still when the opponent is the far afield and far-out-of-the-playoff-race Edmonton Oilers.

But Tuesday's was no normal mid-week game against an underwhelming opponent.

Sure, the Predators — legitimately considered Stanley Cup contenders — were back at home, albeit briefly, after basketball exiled them to the West Coast.

But find fans in a moment of honesty and ask why they really made the trip to Fifth and Broadway, and they'll tell you the real reason the stands were full.

For weeks, it seemed, Tuesday would be the night Alexander Radulov — repatriated to his NHL team after four years — made his debut at Bridgestone Arena.

It wasn't. Blame the delay on setbacks and hang-ups that seemed interminable. Would Russia's KHL allow him to leave, letting him out of his contract to return to the team he spurned in the summer of 2008? Would the dynamic, ebullient, enigmatic forward with the goal-scoring touch of an ice-bound avenging angel indeed come back? Would rival NHL teams relent to what they knew was fair: allowing Radulov to rejoin the team he rejected?

The back-and-forth made for a frustrating two weeks. Amateur semanticists pored over every Google-Translated Russian news report, seeking insights into the forward's future. All they found were computer-mangled quotes that read like Rocky IV's Ivan Drago deciphered from Morse code, missing a few dots and dashes.

But in the pre-dawn hours Tuesday, Radulov tweeted a photo: him on a plane. He said he was outbound from Moscow, inbound to JFK and eventually to Nashville. It was real. He was coming back.

He would not arrive in time to play against the Oilers. His home debut comes Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets. In a sense, it's fitting he should begin his Nashville stay battling the former Atlanta Thrashers, a franchise that bolted the tough going in the South for better options elsewhere.

Among those who made it out anyway in Tuesday's mass of fans — a unlikely 17,113 — was Nick McDuffie. Predators fans may not know his name, but they likely know who he is. Many of them share the sentiment he's carried on his back since the fateful summer of 2008, when Radulov left.

McDuffie wears a custom jersey with Radulov's No. 47. Normally, it would read "Radulov" on the nameplate.

Instead, it reads "TRAITOR."

He intended, originally, to buy a shirt adorned with Rads' name.

"When he bolted, I decided to choose another option to display my feelings," McDuffie said. "I was disappointed with his move to the KHL.  He left the team high and dry.   David Poile finally drafted a legitimate scorer and only to see him leave when he was under contract was a huge disappointment. It was like having the toy you always wanted, but only to have it stolen from you before you got to really enjoy it."

McDuffie's had time to think about how he'll feel when Radulov pulls on a gold jersey. He expected him back last season and, like many, thought he might never return. He's not thrilled that Radulov will get to satisfy his entry-level deal by simply playing out the last few games of this season and the playoffs, but it's worth it. It's worth the gamble.

And this season may be all about the gamble.

General manager David Poile added three players at the trade deadline: defenseman Hal Gill, big as the Biblical Nephilim, tough and immovable as obelisk; Paul Gaustad, stony and steady, whose grittiness belies a ambidextrous face-off wizardry; and Andrei Kostitsyn, the shoot-first inverse of his pass-happy brother Sergei.

And then Poile added one more: Radulov, perhaps the best pure goal scorer festooned with a saber-tooth head.

Looming in the off-season now is his contract, along with those of the dynamic defense duo of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. It's another puzzle Poile must solve. But that is for later. Let tomorrow worry about tomorrow, just as the past is best left where it lies.

McDuffie wants Radulov for another year, so the forward will have the opportunity to autograph his name across the nameplate. McDuffie says he won't change it, leaving it a stitched-in memorial to the Russian's four years away.

But at least for the next few weeks, he's ready to welcome back the one who spurned him and his team.

"When Radulov suits up for the Preds, I will cheer for him, because I root for the team to succeed. The No. 1 goal is to bring a Stanley Cup to Nashville," he said.

And with Radulov back, adding to an already talented bunch, that goal has never been closer.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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