NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Pekka Rinne stood tall, turning away chance after chance by the Stars until John Klingberg’s shot sailed high past a shielded Rinne and into the net for the game and series clinching goal with 2:58 left in overtime of game six Monday night.
Rinne deserves better. The Predators did not.
Nashville came with all the desperation it could have displayed with its back against the wall, but that was not good enough. Dallas was simply the better team in this series, which would have been over sooner had Rinne, who stopped 49 shots in game six, didn’t steal game three in Dallas with 40 saves.
This series was won by the Stars. Ben Bishop matched Rinne save for save buoyed by one of the stingiest defenses in the league. The Stars also got 18 points from their big line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov after first time playoff coach Jim Montgomery switched things up and then stuck with them early in the series.
It was also lost by a Predators team that just never seemed right after a quick start to the season was followed by injuries. The Central Division title masked the inadequacies, but was perhaps more a testament to how far the Jets had slipped and how much ground the Blues had to make up than what the Preds were doing right.
The inconsistencies of the season were exposed in this series. Sloppy giveaways and too many defensive zone mistakes asked Rinne to make too many impossible saves. The Predators once again took too many penalties and, if possible, their own power play which ranked last in the NHL during the regular season was even worse in this series, going 0-15.
So often over the past few years when the Preds have been in a battle it’s been their stars that have bailed them out with a big goal. That didn’t happen in this series as a top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson combined for just four points and only produced one goal on the ice together. And the secondary scoring the team’s been trying to find all season didn’t come in this series, either, leading to further speculation about the future of second line center Kyle Turris in Nashville and discussion about the value of trade deadline acquisitions Brian Boyle, Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund.
It’s not that they weren’t trying. The effort still appeared to be there night in and night out, but no longer could these Predators dictate play.
Two years ago on the way to the Stanley Cup their defense looked nearly impenetrable with a neutral zone trap that forced frustrated opponents, unable to possess the puck into the offensive zone, to dump it in often right to an adept Rinne at clearing pucks out and starting the transition to offense the other way. The result was a team that spent much more time attacking than playing defense. Even last year while on the way to the President’s Trophy the Predators played with a speed and attacking style matched by few teams around the league.
But all that seems gone now. The Preds looked slow to react this year. They no longer clog the neutral zone as evidenced by the Stars ability to routinely carry pucks into the zone and set up their attack, forcing Nashville to play defense for far too long in this series while it struggled to create attacking chances.
So, what happened? That’s a multi-layered question that may take the entire offseason to answer. The Predators will have a little extra time to think it over after their first opening round playoff exit since 2015.
And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Over the previous three seasons the Preds played 295 meaningful games in the regular season and playoffs. Tack on another 88 this year and it’s possible the wear and tear finally got to them. A longer offseason will give them a chance to rest, heal up and regroup.
But it’s possible that isn’t the root of the problem. Each player will have to be looked at and so will the way things are done defensively, on the power play, etc. And the coaches should be examined as well.
It’s hard to be too critical of Peter Laviolette, who over the last four seasons has won five of the seven playoff series in team history, two Central Division titles, the President’s Trophy and reached the Stanley Cup Final. But Laviolette’s coaching track record shows teams that have almost immediate success but are unable to sustain it over the course of several seasons.
He won the Stanley Cup in his first full season in Carolina and reached the Cup Final in his first season in Philadelphia. Both teams fired him early into his fifth season on the job.
Laviolette just finished his fifth season in Nashville, and for the first time it had to be considered a disappointment. He will, and should, be back next season after all he’s accomplished with the Predators. But, just like everyone else in that locker room, he needs to take a long look at what went wrong this season.
The answers may not be easy to come by, but something has to change. Because, for better or worse, expectations have changed in Smashville. And this season was just simply not good enough.