The Nashville Predators were the best team in hockey all year long, winners of the President’s Trophy with the league’s best record. On Monday night they will stare the sudden end of that dream season in the face in a must win game six of their second round playoff series at Winnipeg.
It is do or die, win or go home time for a team that put up a franchise record 117 points during the regular season. A postseason that was expected by many experts to end in the glory of a Stanley Cup parade down Broadway in mid-June could end before Mother’s Day, less than halfway to that goal.
This would not be a failure. The Jets, after all, finished with the NHL’s second best record, just three points behind the Predators in the regular season. As upsets go, this is on the scale of two seed beating a one in the NCAA Tournament, not a UMBC over Virginia, no. 16 over no. 1 epic.
But make no mistake, this would be an epic disappointment. The Predators burst on to the hockey scene last spring with a surprising trip from no. 8 seed to the Stanley Cup Final. Those underdogs battled through injuries to silence their doubters along the way.
They picked up where they left off this season with a team record 53 wins and their first ever Central Division title. They seemed poised to take that next step.
But this postseason has been anything but steady. There was the 5-3 loss to the Avalanche in game three of round one. And then the meltdown in game five, when the Predators held a 1-0 lead with less than 5:00 left in a close out game on home ice, yet gave up not just one, but two goals to lose in regulation.
The Preds were good enough to overcome those falters against the no. 8 seeded Avalanche, but that should have served as a warning for what was ahead in round two. The Jets are too good to lose your concentration against, but the inconsistency has continued.
There has been lapses of composure in home losses in games one and five, and the failure to close out yet another late lead in game two, though the Predators did manage to win on Kevin Fiala’s double overtime winner. Most troubling was the total collapse in game three, when the Preds raced to a 3-0 lead after one period in Winnipeg, only to give up four goals in the second period and lose 7-4.
In the playoffs, where the margins are so small, you simply can’t afford those types of lapses against good teams. The Jets are most certainly a good team and, not surprisingly, have taken advantage.
But what about the Preds? They are clearly a good team, but their postseason has left many questions. Why have Pekka Rinne’s save numbers dipped? Why does the best blue line in the league suddenly look pedestrian? Where has the second line disappeared to? And has all that added depth they talked about actually hurt this team’s cohesiveness somehow?
Whatever the answers, and we may never get them, this team has lacked what is the hardest trait to define in sports, which is that elusive “it” factor. Last year’s team, while less talented, had “it”. This year’s team seems to have lost it.
The good news is there’s still time to recapture the magic. The season is not over yet, though it is on the brink. The Predators, as P.K. Subban boldly proclaimed after the loss in game five, can “go to Winnipeg and win a hockey game.” Do that, and they force a game seven back in Bridgestone Arena, where the home ice advantage they worked so hard for has to play into their favor at some point, right?
Win these two games and the Predators will again be the Stanley Cup favorites and all those questions will be tabled, at least for now. But in order to win these two games the Predators will have to do something they have yet to do this postseason. Play their best hockey.
The Jets aren’t going anywhere, that much is clear. If the Predators truly are the best team in the NHL, they’re going to have to prove it.
This team is capable, but it will require 120 minutes, at least, of near perfect hockey. Otherwise, they’ll be booking vacations for next week.