We gathered ’round our big screens, our flat screens, our mobile devices, our home theaters and in some cases in front of Bridgestone Arena, or in bars and restaurants all across Music City. We showed up to cheer for the team that showed up for us on Thursday night, and kicked some Blackhawk butt, earning the right to live and play one more MUST WIN game, for the chance to force a Game Seven, back at home Monday.
Yes, it was just past 7 o’clock, and we inhaled, and waited… and it didn’t take long for us to collectively exhale with a huge sigh of relief. James Neal, brought in to the Predators organization this season to be a big-time goal scorer, delivered a big time goal… and then, magically, moments later, another one… and suddenly, a few ticks past eight minutes gone in Game Six and the United Center scoreboard read Nashville 2, Chicago 0.
In the last blog, we put into your head the idea that Chicago’s coach, Joel Quenneville, had a huge decision to make in nets. Does he return to Corey Crawford, who had played four inexplicably bad periods of hockey in this series, or would he stick with the rookie Scott Darling, who finally felt a chink in the armor, giving up three goals in a two minute span to officially melt down and give Nashville the big Game Five win? Quenneville chose Darling, and eight minutes into the game, there had to be some doubt in the back of the minds of 22,000 rabid Hawks fans, not to mention the hometown coach and both goaltenders.
Chicago struck with a goal of their own as Patrick Sharp netted his third of the playoffs. But, as the Preds had done a few times in this series, in less than a minute, Matt Cullen put a third puck past Darling, and Quenneville had seen enough. Exit Rookie, Enter Veteran. Veteran, who had to know that the Preds had not just a 3-1 lead, but also the confidence that they’d been putting pucks behind him with regularity in Games One and Two. What happens next, is the kind of script that infuriates the viewer.
First, almost at will, the Hawks score a goal to cut the lead to 3-2. This happens just 58 seconds after the swap was made. Then, the Predators decide to shut down and conveniently forget what got them their three goals to start the game. Gone was the aggression, gone was the puck support, gone was the net-front presence.
Sure, the Hawks did their Archie Bell and the Drells impersonation, and tightened up, but the Predators turtled and the offense went away. Vanished into thin air. Just six seconds remained in the opening period when the Preds lost a key faceoff and Patrick Kane blasted a shot past a screened Pekka Rinne to tie the game up. There was probably a sick feeling as the team headed back to the visitor’s dressing room and as hard as they tried to put that sequence out of their minds, the harder it got to understand their lack of “push back.”
In fact, at one point in the second period, Crawford overtook Darling in time on ice, but whereas Darling had faced twelve shots, Crawford had faced just four. This is not the way to either pad, or in this case, regain a lead and win a game. This is the way to the inevitable. The same inevitable we saw in overtime victories in Games One and Four. The same fate would come back to close out the Predators 2014-15 season, but tonight it would be in regulation time. Blackhawk defenseman Duncan Keith, a former Norris Trophy winner and a guy who absolutely controls the play on the ice when he has the puck, fired another shot past the screened Rinne (sound familiar?), for the first Hawks lead of the night. This chain of events gave the Preds a little more than three minutes in scramble mode to desperately come up with an answer, an equalizer, an extra attacker, but it was not meant to be. Final score: Chicago 4, Nashville 3.
Tonight we lay to rest the hopes and dreams of a Stanley Cup in Nashville in 2015. We had earlier laid to rest a possible President’s Trophy, a near Central Division title, a stunning Calder nomination and possible win for forward Filip Forsberg and a probable Hart (MVP) nomination for Rinne. Now Saturday night, as the final whistle sounded, we felt the deafening silence that was the punctuation point at the end of seven months of expectations. As hockey fans, as Nashville Predators fans, we feel loss and the bitter overrides the sweet as the Chicago Blackhawks advance to Round Two in the greatest tournament in professional sports.
In the coming days I will write my final report card; give high marks where due and cite room for improvement where needed going into next season. I will sing the praises of a core that should provide a lot of exciting moments on the ice moving forward and I will scream from the roof tops about what I believe will have to be done to continue to compete in the ultra-competitive Western Conference of the National Hockey League. Yes, the Predators wrapped up a season that erased many bad memories of the two seasons prior but the expectations we all felt in December, January and February were tempered by the team slump that permeated the Predators in March, and subsequently April, when it counted the most.
Now our warriors head back to Nashville, to clear out their lockers and travel to their respective homes to rest up and ultimately re-set. We’ve been re-setting on a game-by-game basis over the past few weeks but now there are no longer reasons to discuss and not discuss “upper” and “lower” body injuries. Players will be using this time to get ready for 2015-16 and some may find themselves in hospitals, or gyms, home town ice rinks, or world tournaments, et al. Predators will span the globe, only to return in the fall, eager to erase the bitter taste of defeat so early in the post-season. I know I’ll be back, brimming with optimism, and I hope you will too.
We lost a big game Saturday night, and the final strains of “Chelsea Dagger,” Chicago’s “goal-song” felt like a dagger in our collective hearts, but we too can hit that re-set button and know that when it’s all said and done only one team gets to hoist the Stanley Cup… and last year’s winners, the Los Angeles Kings, didn’t even make it to the party this time around! A small step forward was certainly taken by the Nashville Predators players and coaching staff and I thank you for walking this journey with me throughout the entire season. Watch for more season ending Preds news later this week!