Nashville Predators coach Peter Laviolette told us that the second round would be a lot tougher than the first. He wasn’t kidding. The St. Louis Blues had a lot going in their favor heading into this series. As hot as the Preds had been going into the playoffs, the Blues were hotter. With a new coach at the helm & the front office trading away one of their top players at the trade deadline, they definitely had the “Nobody Believes In Us” factor going for them even if you don’t take into account their status as the oldest NHL franchise never to win a Cup. The only goalie near the same level as Preds goalie Pekka Rinne in the first round was Blues goalie Jake Allen.
Yeah, sure, the Predators had looked very impressive in the First Round against the hated Chicago Blackhawks. But this round had been the furthest the Nashville organization had ever made it into the playoffs. Making the Conference Finals would be new territory, something the Preds had never done before. As a person that supports teams that are accustomed to leaving at certain points of their playoff season, I was a little bit worried that the Predators wouldn’t shake their demons and the Blues off to make it out of the Central side of the bracket into the Western Conference Final.
Here are some of the stories that emerged during the 2016-17 Preds’ quest to go where no Preds team had gone before:
P.K. Subban grabbed the spotlight early in the series with a dominant performance in Game 1, setting the Predators off to a good start with a goal and two assists in a 4-3 victory. NBC analysts chose not to focus on that in the Game 2 pregame. Instead, Mike Milbury opted to talk about how P.K. was acting like a clown by dancing and bobbing his head to the music while getting ready for Game 2, and that Laviolette needed to rap him in the head and get him in the game. It was a horrendous take that is sadly shared by a certain percentage of hockey fans that don’t understand that players don’t have to look like they’re about to crap themselves on the ice in order to properly get focused for a game.
Subban has always done things his way. It’s a large part of his charm. It’s a large part of why he’s quickly become a favorite of Nashville fans even if acquiring him meant that former Nashville captain Shea Weber had to go to Montreal. He isn’t the typical hockey player in a lot of ways. He’s charismatic. He’s entertaining. He’s a Black Canadian. Hockey players are usually not these things, and it takes some getting used to for the old school types.
Whatever P.K. is off the ice, it can’t be denied that on the ice he’s one of the most effective defensemen in the NHL. He & the rest of the Preds blue line were on point again in this series, powering the offense and helping Pekka Rinne take care of business. If defense wins championships, the Preds are in good shape for years to come.
The old men of hockey can keep doubting P.K., and they will keep being proven wrong.
Interesting Lineup Choices
Many online Preds fans were dismayed by the changes Laviolette made to the Preds offensive lines in the second round. If it worked so well in the first, why change things in the second? Lavy told us it was going to be a tougher series, and the main reason why was the opposition.
Let’s call it what it is: the St. Louis Blues gooned it up in this series. They knew that the best chance they had of beating Nashville was to make the games no-holds-barred streetfights. That’s not really the Chicago Blackhawks’ game, and that’s why Nashville could play faster in the first round. In order to beat the Blues, Laviolette knew they needed to activate some gentlemen that watched the Chicago series from the pressbox, guys that Nashville picked up during the season when it became obvious early on that the departure of Shea Weber meant that other teams didn’t have the same fear of the Preds that they used to. They could beat the Preds up without having to worry about Weber killing them. The Preds needed some tough, physical veterans that would settle things that needed to be settled.
Cody McLeod was Jeremy Lambert’s least favorite member of the Colorado Avalanche. He brings grittiness, physicality and lots of fighting, but isn’t exactly known for his offensive prowess. He’s an enforcer, a goon, an old school hockey player. A character guy. A great locker room presence. He was exactly what the Preds needed in this series, and he even got the game-winning goal in Game 3.
Vernon Fiddler broke into the NHL as a fresh-faced twenty-two year old Nashville Predator in 2002. After some time in Phoenix, Dallas & New Jersey, he returned to the Preds this season as a grizzled thirty-six year old veteran. He played twenty games with the Preds. He scored one goal. Add in the goals he got during the thirty-nine games he played with the Devils, and he scored a grand total of two goals during the 2016-17 season. So of course he would get the game-winning goal in Game 1, right?
Add in twenty-five year old Austin Watson, who just might be the hardest hitter on the team, and that’s a fourth line that if nothing else will make the other team fight every night. I’m still relatively young as a hockey fan, but from what I can tell you can’t ask for much more than that from a fourth line.
As an added bonus, it’s fun to point out that McLeod & Fiddler both have more game-winning goals in the playoff season than any member of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Some Bumps In The Road
The Predators didn’t emerge from the second round unscathed. Kevin Fiala appeared to be on the verge of a breakout playoff season, scoring two goals in the Chicago series including the overtime game-winner in Game 3. Unfortunately his season came to an end in Game 1 of the St. Louis series, as a collision with Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo and the boards resulted in a fractured left femur. You hate to see that happen to a twenty-year old on the verge of making a name for himself, and all you can hope is that he gets 100% and can live up to the potential he was on the verge of realizing.
The critically acclaimed JOFA line wasn’t as dominant in this series as it was in the first round. Three points for Viktor Arvidsson in six games is rather pedestrian by his standards, and Filip Forsberg only scoring one goal in the series is a bit of an upset. Fortunately Ryan Johansen was able to get the game-winner in Game 6 and hopefully that bit of momentum will get them going in the right direction again.
The bright side here is that now the Preds can say they overcame some adversity. The Chicago series didn’t provide much in the way of that. You need to get punched in the mouth one time and know you can survive. The Preds did.
Vindication For Poile
Nobody can be feeling better about the Preds moving on to the Western Conference Final than General Manager David Poile. As the only GM the franchise has ever known, Poile has made every move to build this team during their eighteen seasons in existence. Two of the trades he’s made stand out above the rest, and their success or lack thereof will decide the future of the Nashville organization.
Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. Shea Weber for P.K. Subban. Jones was a promising young defenseman that was the fourth pick in the 2013 Entry Draft and was considered by many the best player heading into it. He could have been the future of the Nashville Predators. Shea Weber was the present of the Nashville Predators. Their captain. The face of the franchise. Poile traded Nashville’s present & future for two players that he thought could do better.
Johansen & Subban’s contributions to this playoff run are backing up Poile’s faith in them. There’s nothing better than when you make tough decisions and they work out in your favor. Both trades could have blown up in Poile’s face and left the Preds on the outside looking in for years to come. Heck, maybe a few years down the road the script will have flipped and we’ll be looking at Seth Jones lifting the Cup with the Columbus Blue Jackets or Shea Weber leading the Montreal Canadiens to a Cup and cementing his legacy as a true legend while wondering what could have been for the Preds.
But that’s years down the road. Right now, the Predators are eight games away from the Stanley Cup while Jones & Weber sit at home. Nothing personal against either guy, but that’s the optimal outcome for David Poile. He could have had two of the best defensemen in the league. Instead, he got one of the best defensemen in the league and a first-line center.
For right now…Advantage: Poile.
We don’t know. The Anaheim Ducks & Edmonton Oilers head towards Game 7 in Anaheim on Wednesday night. If the Ducks win, expect a series very similar to the St. Louis series. The Ducks are experienced, physical, and chomping at the bits to get back to the Stanley Cup Final before their window closes. They also haven’t forgotten how their playoff run ended in the first round last year against Nashville. They’ll be looking for revenge, and it’ll be a war.
If Edmonton wins, the Preds may be staring at the future of the NHL. Connor McDavid is the next top star of the league, and thanks to some fortunate lottery ball bounces he’s surrounded by a heck of a team. They’re not as physical as Anaheim but they’re as offensively gifted as any team in the NHL. Pekka Rinne will have his toughest test yet.
Winning two rounds is great. All Preds fans should spend the next couple of days celebrating. But the Predators themselves know that they’re only halfway to the ultimate goal. They might have been the second wild card going in, but they know that expectations were higher before the season started, and they’re even higher now that they’ve taken care of Chicago & St. Louis. Whoever they play in the Western Conference Final will be the toughest test yet.
All the Preds can do is be ready. I think they will be.