Preds Playoff Thoughts: Western Conference Champions

I find the whole “NOBODY BELIEVED IN US” thing some sports teams cling to for motivation to be highly overrated, if not completely inaccurate. There is always somebody that believed in a team to make it all the way to the Promised Land of the Stanley Cup Final. Even if the Nashville Predators were the 16th best team in the National Hockey League during the regular season, I can’t sit here and tell you that nobody believed in them. Mostly because people chose the preseason to believe in them.

My hockey dad Jeremy Lambert picked them to win the Western Conference in the preseason. The NHL 17 video game regular season & playoff simulation carried out by EA Sports both had Nashville winning the Cup. (That playoff simulation got almost nothing else right. Montreal was in the Final, Pittsburgh lost to Columbus in the first round, Nashville beat Minnesota & Edmonton in the 2nd round & conference final…it was just a bit off.) Heck, even I wrote a column¬†expressing some optimism going into the season, and I never do that!

The regular season did the best it could to kill that optimism. I was already feeling pretty bad about things by early November. The Predators would have periods of time where it looked like they would live up to their preseason potential, and immediately follow it by crashing back to Earth with inferior play. The Preds just couldn’t seem to get any momentum going all season, be it injuries, lack of coordination or just general uselessness.

The strange thing about it was that I never had any doubt they would make it to the postseason. I had a lot of doubt about what they would do once they got there, but it just felt like the team was spinning its wheels and biding its time for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The time of year where regular season records are thrown out (except for that pesky seeding) & you simply have to keep winning to continue playing.

The Playoffs can turn a disappointing season into a high-water mark, and a successful one into a disaster. Just ask Chicago, Montreal & Washington. Three squads among the favorites to lift the Cup that weren’t around past the second round and are now looking for answers instead of glory.

The Ducks were looking for answers after Game 1. Nashville has gotten each series off to a good start with a road victory taking home-ice away from their opponents and knocking them on their heels. It took overtime, but James Neal managed to knock a one-timer off of Corey Perry’s head to end it. Always a bonus when you can do something like that.

Game 2 wasn’t as fun for the Preds, as Pekka Rinne finally had a rough outing in this postseason. It was bound to happen eventually, as he’s been incredible pretty much every game since the month of April started. The big story coming out of this game was Ryan Johansen commenting to the media about Ryan Kesler’s rough style of play and everybody getting all excited about it. I had no problem with RyJo’s comments and took it as an attempt to get certain people to notice things the Ducks were doing on the ice and getting away with. Make no bones about it: Anaheim plays a dirty game featuring unlikable people. It’s part of why I don’t know any Ducks fans other than Dustin James, and he roots for the ones in Oregon, not Anaheim.

Game 3 was especially memorable for your humble correspondent. It was my first time inside Bridgestone Arena. My first trip to Smashville. All I can say is that all the hype about the Nashville crowd is real. I know some people out there question Nashville as a “hockey town”. The Preds weren’t around for the Original Six days. Nashville isn’t in Canada. These things make Old School Hockey Fan reticent to buy in. They cling to the idea that Nashville will only support the Predators when they’re really good, and that hockey only belongs north of the border and in a few select American markets where fans buy into old-fashioned hard-nosed hockey with no frills. Places that can be “hockey towns”, whatever that means.

Yes, the Nashville fan likes to be entertained. They might not be inclined to support a product that bores them just for the sake of it. There’s a lot of bandwagoning going on. Celebrities are buying in, which only builds the bandwagon more. Where I differ from Old School Hockey Fan is this: I don’t see any problem with it. None whatsoever. Maybe it’s because I myself am new to this scene. This is my fifth year watching the Preds & living & dying with every result. Does that make me “Bandwagon Guy” to Old School Hockey Fan? Maybe. But do they really want their sport without people like me watching & getting into it? Wouldn’t they like better TV ratings and more fan interest spread over the entire NHL and not just concentrated in certain markets?

From a business perspective, hockey needs more people like me. Hockey needs the people who are packing Bridgestone Arena & standing outside watching Preds games on big screens. Yes, there are crowd chants that might not be very nice to the opposition. Sometimes we get excited over things that bore Old School Hockey Fan that’s been there and done that. Maybe there’s even a delayed reaction to a hat trick. Hey, this whole Stanley Cup Final thing is new to us. We haven’t been there and done that. We’re figuring it out, though.

smashville

Game 3 itself was another up and down battle. The Ducks got on the board first, towards the end of the second period when Perry scored on a power play goal created by a Cody McLeod penalty. I’ll defend Cody here, at some point you have to defend your teammates when they keep taking dirty shots. It also helped that the Preds responded in the third period with two goals to win the game. They could have had four goals if not for some unfortunate goalie interference calls, but those calls have been weird all postseason in every series and you can’t get too worked up about it. As long as Roman Josi scores a game-winner for your team, of course. If they don’t, go ahead and go crazy. Preds fans went crazy Tuesday night, in a good way. The buzz leaving the arena was palpable and you could sense good times ahead.

Game 4 was a downer for the Preds. Partially because I wasn’t there, but mostly because the Ducks dominated the game and eventually won in overtime with a Corey Perry shot bouncing off of P.K. Subban’s stick. With the exception of the last ten minutes of the third period where the Preds were able to overcome a two-goal deficit and cause overtime, the Ducks were the better team all night. The Preds were bound to lose a game in Nashville eventually…believe it or not, most teams don’t win all their home games! Shocking, I know.

Things got even more dire the day after Game 4 when we found out that Ryan Johansen would miss the rest of the postseason due to a thigh injury. The JOFA line had carried Nashville through the postseason so far, and now Peter Laviolette had to rip up the lines and come up with something that worked. Add in the absence of Mike Fisher due to injury and the Predators would be without their top two centers for Game 5. Not ideal, to say the least. I was looking at the bright side of being able to get more sleep starting in a couple of days, as I figured that surely the Preds were doomed.

I’ve been wrong a lot this postseason.

A top line of Colton Sissons, Filip Forsberg & Pontus Aberg didn’t seem like the best of ideas on paper. Forsberg is pretty great, but Aberg was on Nashville’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee for most of this season and Sissions was a guy that hadn’t really done a lot of note this season. Eight goals and two assists in fifty-eight games this season isn’t exactly something that inspires confidence in a fan. But when it’s the playoffs and all the options in front of you are gone, you gotta step up. Sissons & Aberg did exactly that, and it was Pontus with the game-winning goal midway through the third period.

The Preds held on & took the series lead after a PIVOTAL Game 5. I was still a little pessimistic heading into Game 6 though, and to be honest the Ducks out-played the Preds for most of the game. They got 41 shots on goal to Nashville’s 18. Most of the game was spent with Anaheim taking shots at Pekka Rinne. Fortunately, Pekka was Pekka and the Ducks were without top goalie John Gibson. Jonathan Bernier couldn’t fill Gibson’s void and the Preds were able to take advantage during the limited time they had on offense. The Ducks overcame a 3-1 deficit to tie the game with 11 minutes left in the third, but Colton Sissons completed a hat trick to equal his postseason point total with his regular season point total, & Forsberg & Austin Watson added some empty-netters to send Nashville to a new frontier.

Now the Preds wait to find out who they will meet next. Game 7 for the Eastern Conference Final will be Thursday night, with Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night. It could be the Ottawa Senators attempting to bring Canada its first Cup since 1993. It could be the Pittsburgh Penguins attempting to repeat as champions and solidify their place in the argument over who the Team of the 2010s is. Nashville will simply be trying to win their first Cup. Without Ryan Johansen, probably their best all-around offensive player. Possibly without their captain Mike Fisher, who’s missed the last couple games. Add in Kevin Fiala’s leg injury from the second round and the Predators have definitely taken their fair share of shots along the way. They’ll take a few more before it’s over. The Predators have a healthy belief in themselves that has helped carry them this far, and no amount of injuries will be able to shake it.

The bottom line is that the Nashville Predators are four wins away from lifting the Stanley Cup. Part of me is very excited. Part of me is terrified.

Is it Monday night yet?

joeykesler

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