The best case scenario for the Nashville Predators in a series against the Chicago Blackhawks was a six or seven game series win. The realistic expectation was a six or seven game series loss. The expectation from many in the media was a five or six game series loss. The expectation from many Chicago fans was a four game sweep by the Blackhawks. They’ll tell you they were joking, but nobody in Chicago was giving the Preds a tremendous amount of respect heading into the series. And why should they have? The Hawks had the Preds’ number. They’ve won three Stanley Cups in seven years. If any team’s fans had legitimate reason to overlook the first round competition, it was Chicago’s.
Nobody predicted it exactly right. Our friend Jeremy Lambert got the winner right, but he was off by three games. Nashville shocked the hockey world by sending the Blackhawks home with four straight losses.
Nobody saw it coming.
But it’s easy to explain.
Pekka Rinne is the best goalie in Nashville Predators history by a pretty wide margin. He’s played the most games and leads in pretty much any category you can think of. There was only one category he was missing something in prior to the Blackhawks series: playoff success. Rinne’s previous postseason efforts haven’t gone particularly well, relegating him to the second tier when people talk about the top current goalies in the NHL. Going into this season he had a 22-26 playoff record, including two series defeats to the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks scored three goals in four games. Not three goals four times. Three goals spread out over four games. They didn’t score at all at their home rink, which greatly pleased everybody outside of Chicago because NHL fans have grown to despise the Blackhawks’ goal song.
Yeah, I’m not a huge fan of it either. But I wonder how Nashville’s goal song would go over with NHL fans if the Preds had a run like the Blackhawks had one of these days…is there a tremendous overlap between country music fans & hockey fans? Cause I can see NHL Fan getting all worked up over Tim McGraw pretty easily. I mean, it’s Nashville so you have to do country, but I think NHL Fan would react violently after a couple of Stanley Cup Finals with Tim McGraw playing repeatedly.
At any rate, Pekka finally had the type of postseason performance necessary to be considered a true elite goalie. The Hawks couldn’t get the puck past him, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that when you can’t score you can’t win. Pekka got quite a bit of heat during the regular season from Preds fans that were worried about his age and wanted to see more of the young backup, Juuse Saros. With all due respect to Carter Hutton, previous Nashville teams had a pretty severe dropoff from Pekka to his backup, so Pekka would typically get over-used during the regular season and fall off during the postseason. He got a little more rest this year, and I think that was a key part of the difference in his performance in this series. Hopefully the early ending to this series and the added rest will help as well.
The big news in Nashville (and everywhere else in hockey) during the off-season was the trade sending Captain Shea Weber to Montreal in exchange for the exciting, everresscent P.K. Subban. The debate over who got the better end of the deal may never come to a close during Subban’s career. What we can say about this season is that P.K., hampered by injury and needing time to adjust to his new surroundings, got off to a bit of a slow start. The defense as a whole did, as Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis & Mattias Ekholm also missed time at various points of the season due to injury. I figured that once these guys were all healthy at the same time, they would be a dangerous force to reckon with.
I was right. And the best part of it all is that the top four, along with veterans Matt Irwin & Yannick Weber, are coming together at the perfect time: the postseason. Subban looks like the superstar he has been his whole career, Jodi as usual is the quiet leader killing other teams, and they’ve formed good pairings with Eckholm & Ellis respectively. When you can throw together four defensemen like that at their best, it’s tough to go wrong.
The ineffectiveness of Chicago’s offense had a lot to do with that defense keeping them from getting comfortable and getting good shots. Pekka was Pekka, but he had a lot of help.
The Jofa Line
When I became a Preds fan a few years ago, one of the knocks against the team was the fact that even though they had superstars on defense & a great goalie, their forwards weren’t really up to snuff. Sure, Mike Fisher was a nice player, surrounded by a lot of other nice players, but they weren’t up to the standard set by your typical Cup contender. People were right about that. That’s why Nashville general manager David Poile has spent much of his time bringing in dynamic offensive players to take the Preds to the next level.
It started with acquiring Filip Forsberg from the Washington Capitals in 2013. Nobody was really sure what Washington was thinking at the time, as the consensus inside hockey was that Forsberg was going to be a great player & trading him to Nashville for Martin Erat & Michael Latta wasn’t going to be the short-term boost that the Caps were hoping for. They weren’t, and the 22-year old Forsberg is well on his way to being one of the top players in the league.
Ryan Johansen was the next major offensive acquisition by GM Poile, arriving from Columbus via a trade where the Preds gave up a top young defensive star in Seth Jones. Jones is continuing to do big things in Columbus and helped get the Blue Jackets to the postseason this year, but he was stuck behind a number of people in Nashville and sending him on his way was the best thing for his career. Johansen, the fourth overall pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, had fallen out of favor in Columbus and desperately needed a change of scenery at 24 years old.
Viktor Arvidsson wasn’t a high-profile acquisition from another team. The Preds took him with the 112th overall pick in the 2014 Entry Draft. His first full season wasn’t much to write home about…he was your basic young NHL player that showed a ton of effort and people didn’t really notice him until he scored the game-winning goal in Game 6 of the Conference Semifinal against the Sharks. This season has been a completely different story, as the 23-year old Arvidsson’s game has risen to a level most people didn’t think it would get to.
At some point midway through this season, coach Peter Laviolette figured that the combination of Forsberg’s shooting, Johansen’s passing & Arvidsson’s tenacity would work well together, and the Jofa Line was born. The line-mates have become the best of friends, which happens pretty easily when you’re young and successful together. They have the potential to be the greatest line in Nashville history…heck, they probably already are and they definitely will be if they keep this up. One thing is for sure…Nashville finally has a top line worthy of being a top line anywhere in the league.
The toughest part of writing about this series from the perspective of a fan that tends to point out the negative to keep himself from getting too excited is that there were no negatives. Everbody performed at a top level and the #1 seed in the Western Conference hadn’t looked that bad since before Patrick Kane was drafted. I have no complaints about anything.
Which goes to show the key to success for the Preds going forward: keep that desperation & intensity they showed against the Blackhawks going. This isn’t the time to get happy & content. They only won one series. They would need to win three more to get where some people had them going in the preseason.
The good news is that the 2016-17 Nashville Predators that people expected to see in the preseason have finally shown up. Let’s hope they stay around awhile.