The 2014-15 National Hockey League schedule began with few people giving the Nashville Predators much of a chance at post-season glory. Sure there were writers who thought the team would benefit from a full year of health from world class goaltender Pekka Rinne, and there were some who thought that the team’s moving on from the stifling defensive systems of Barry Trotz to a more offensively minded coach in Peter Laviolette would create more opportunity for success in the uptempo Central Division the Preds find themselves situated in.
By early October we began our quest to provide you with a weekly glimpse into the Preds season, and the initial results were nothing short of sensational. The Predators were the talk of the league, and people were singing the praises of Rinne, Laviolette, a rookie named Forsberg, a captain named Weber, his defensive partner named Josi, and off-season acquisitions named Neal, and Ribiero. Indeed just one month ago, on the night of February 17th, the team had won yet another game (a 5-1 gutting of the San Jose Sharks,) for their sixth consecutive win.
The team had survived an injury to Rinne, and back-up goaltender Carter Hutton had steered the ship without missing a beat. The team’s record was an impressive 39-12-6. Delirious fans cheered their way out of the arena game after game, as the team could do virtually no wrong. Magic was in the air, and there was not a dark cloud in the sky.
Fifteen games have been played since February 17th, and the team’s record has been a dismal 4-9-2. Hutton was 1-1 in that stretch, so the 3-8-2 record that has befallen Rinne and the Preds over his last 13 starts tells a greater story. For the Nashville Predators to truly be successful, their elite Finnish goaltender has to be the team’s best player. I can say with certainty that on most of these nights, he has not even been the best goaltender on the ice. Sure, we were spoiled through the team’s early success as every bounce, every deflection, every loose puck seemed to find its way into Pekka’s glove, or under his ample 6’5 frame.
Recently however, chances have eluded the netminder at the most inopportune of times, and while it’s not right to lay the blame 100% on his broad shoulders, it’s been unbearably apparent that the names Dubnyk, Gibson, Gustafsson, Hutchison, and Niemi (to name a few) all came up bigger than their Nashville counterpart at the other end of the ice. In the most recent eleven losses, the team has been outscored 39-19. Factor in some empty net goals, and the margin is lessened a bit, but the lack of scoring, the ineffective power play, and the untimely cooling of Forsberg and Ribiero coupled with this goaltender theory has led us to a point where few are still blissfully happy, and now there are just three weeks left in the regular season.
As we left you last week, the team had embarked on a road trip, and started with an overtime win in Arizona. Granted the Coyotes are well down below the line of team respectability the season, but a win is a win, and the Predators moved on to San Jose, where team captain Joe Thornton was days away from sinking his team’s own ship (by calling out the team’s GM, telling him to shut the (insert expletive here) up!) On this night however, the Sharks were desperate and hungry, and despite being outshot by Nashville 35 to 21, Niemi and company prevailed on the scoresheet 2-0. The past weekend was spent in Southern California, where I had a chance to attend both games. My voice was ragged after a thrilling 2-1 victory at Staples Center, featuring a battle of our heroes against Jonathan Quick and the current defending Stanley Cup Champions. Trailing 1-0 heading into the final period, goals by Josi and Viktor Stalberg (actually, off the stick of Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin) gave Nashville two big points, and Los Angeles one big headache in their quest for a playoff position.
Sunday, we traveled to Anaheim, and through the first 40 minutes, it was excitingly all Nashville, with the Preds holding a 2-0 lead, and giving Ducks fans fits as their team was beyond ineffective trying to conquer Rinne and the offensive zone. In the third period, however, a switch was flipped and it was all Anaheim. The Ducks gained focus, territory and goals… Four to be exact. The flight home was tempered by two wins in four tries, but a sense of letting things slip away a bit when holding a precious lead against the current #1 team in the NHL loomed largely in the air.
Last night’s return to Bridgestone and a return of the Minnesota Wild meant a little more Devan Dubnyk, the goaltender who gave up nine goals in his less than stellar two game stint with the Preds last season. Dubnyk, acquired from Arizona in a January deal, has been lights out for the team starting a remarkable twenty-eight games in a row and posting a 21-5-2 record in that time. Couple that with the Wild’s #1 penalty kill, and some crafty offensive players, and the recipe for disaster was in the making. After Roman Josi had scored twice within 45 seconds in the middle period, giving Nashville a 2-1 lead, the Wild’s Charlie Coyle tied the game, sending it to overtime, and just 22 seconds into the extra time, defenseman Matt Dumba rifled a shot past Rinne, and despite getting a point, the Preds saw another third period lead slip away.
Time to recoup, practice and reset, as the team’s next game is on Saturday at 7pm vs. a bottom-feeder Buffalo Sabres team who have not been able to muster up much of anything all season long. This ineptitude wasn’t fully on display last month, when they gave the Preds and backup goaltender Hutton all they could handle, with Nashville finally escaping with a 2-1 OT victory. Saturday night the team MUST be better.
An exciting home game against the legendary Montreal Canadiens, and their elite goaltender Carey Price is on the docket for Tuesday, and we’ll be back at you next Wednesday, so keep it here, and follow us there, and there, and there. Go Preds! We’re almost there!