For the Nashville Predators, this is a storybook season that has just twenty-five games left in it. Then, as the regular season ends, the real work begins. With a clean slate, and the competition narrowed from thirty to sixteen teams, the first (and only) team to manage and record sixteen post-season victories, at that point, has the honor and privilege of hoisting the coveted Stanley Cup. This Cup is large, has depth and weight, and is the most historical trophy in all of sports. Each player, coach and member of the team’s management staff sees their names engraved on it for a lifetime.
Yes, the Stanley Cup is magnificent… breathtaking, and at that moment of ultimate victory, there is virtually no way for the winning players to succinctly capture and put into words the myriad of emotions, to aptly describe the amount of hard work and dedication that goes in to achieving such a seemingly unattainable goal. Stanley Cup winning teams are hence bonded together for years, even as they drift apart in a salary cap world. Each player savors and cherishes the moment that the Cup is passed to them, for a tour around the ice, and the hand off to the next teammate.
Yet, here we sit, still twenty-five games away from Game ONE of the post-season, and the Nashville Predators haven’t truly won anything yet, despite their current six game winning streak, their six point advantage over their division, conference and league rivals. Despite being the lead story on so many sports networks and news programs across North America, where talk of hockey and the NHL invariably turns to Nashville and a remarkable, unflappable Finnish goaltender named Pekka Rinne.
The Predators are a team that had missed the post-season two years in a row, and were forced to let go of their only coach in franchise history. A Predators team that signed off-season free agents seemingly left on the scrap heap for most other teams to look at only with amusement and disregard. Yes, the team we call our home team, the Nashville Predators now leave us wanting more after every single home win (and there have been a lot of them, 25 of 29 to date to be precise,) and praying that the calendar will not betray our notion that this team is in position to win those sixteen post-season games, and deliver a Cup to the large bowl of fans that scream their lungs out for Rinne, and the team on a game by game basis.
I could honestly fill the rest of this column with another five hundred Pekka Rinne references, but the beauty of hockey is the concept of winning and losing as a team, and the group of men that band together both on and off the ice to create the camaraderie and trust that is selflessly portrayed within the framework of each game.
If you, like I, have followed hockey over the decades, you’ve seen stretches of it in cities like Long Island, Edmonton, Detroit and Montreal, and most recent glimpses on teams like Los Angeles and Chicago. As the 2014-15 NHL season began, there was not a soul that could have predicted the success of the Nashville Predators. Not even General Manager David Poile, or newly hired Head Coach Peter Laviolette could have thought up such league dominance, and yet, again, there is work to be done.
Last week brought the first trickling of “deadline deals” NHL GM’s make to re-tool their teams for either a run at the post-season, or a strengthening of the future by way of selling off assets and acquiring prospects and draft choices. Buyers and sellers, each team is saddled with a monicker and although with tight races in both conferences there are a handful of “bubble” franchises, unsure of whether they should be buyers OR sellers, there are still enough teams willing to make deals to create a highly competitive few weeks for GM’s to jockey and submit their offers in an effort to acquire the key piece or pieces that will put a team over the top in the quest for those sixteen wins.
What Poile did this past weekend was sheer genius. Most writers, commentators, and talking heads spoke of the team’s acquisition of Toronto Maple Leaf forward Mike Santorelli and defenseman Cody Franson as solid pieces that were both originally drafted by Nashville, and therefore already “a fit.” The cost? Spare forward, veteran Olli Jokinen, who may yet find another team on his lengthy resume over the next couple of weeks (the NHL trade deadline is March 2), minor league prospect Brandon Leipsic, and the team’s first round pick (a guaranteed low pick considering the Preds current placement in the standings.)
To this writer, the REAL genius of this deal was the pre-emptive strike that allowed Poile to take a highly sought after commodity, the 6’5 hard hitting rearguard Franson, off the marketplace, and away from the competition. Teams like Los Angeles, Anaheim, St. Louis, and probably a slew of others in the East desperately wanted this kid. Poile knew that as the team goes deep into a Stanley Cup run, he could ill afford to see such a valuable chip land in such undesirable hands. The deal was consummated and announced on Sunday morning, and both players will continue their Preds careers beginning this week, as the team heads out on road for games on Long Island (Thurs), Philadelphia (Saturday) and Buffalo (Sunday.)
While the Islanders are currently the other “surprise” team in the NHL, both the Flyers and Sabres are struggling and will see their seasons end when the clock winds down on the regular campaign. Wins against these teams can be expected, but not taken for granted. Nashville will be breaking both Franson and Santorelli into the lineup, and this means a couple of guys who have played active roles in the current six game win streak will be sitting. As the coaches decide on line combinations and defensive pairings, one thing is certain: there is huge belief in the room that no team is an obstacle to the Nashville Predators, and each player is willing to step up and pay the price to deliver two points on any given night.
I will be in Philadelphia for Saturday’s game, and will be back in Nashville for my regular seat on Tuesday of next week for the game against the Colorado Avalanche, and of course, stay right here next Wednesday for another weekly Preds recap. You can follow me on Twitter for in-game tweets and of course find lots more on the Sports & Entertainment Nashville Facebook and the Twitter homes. GO #PREDS !!!