The Nashville Predators had it all… until they didn’t.
Coming into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Predators seemingly had laid the groundwork for a redemption campaign that would see them travel to the Stanley Cup Final again, and maybe even snag the hardware this time.
They owned the best record in the regular season, possessed the soon-to-be Vezina Trophy winner and trotted out the best defensive corps in the NHL in the opinion of many.
They had the experience. They had tasted the cruelty of losing at the last possible juncture. You have to lose before you can win, right? At least according to sports’ book of unwritten rules.
Nashville had a deep team, capable of scoring, defending and stopping goals — a team bred for success and with a roster chalk full of resumes to back it up — and better than nearly anyone.
Nearly, because on Thursday night the Predators’ season, with all of its expectations, the hopes and dreams and everything they’d learned from a year ago, ceased to exist.
A 5-1 loss in Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round meant Nashville wouldn’t reach the Final. There would be no redemption. Only questions, tears and hopes vanished.
The first finger to be wagged in a particular direction starts in the crease.
Pekka Rinne‘s Vezina-caliber regular season got lost as Nashville traveled into the playoffs and never really found its way back.
“I feel very much responsible for our season ending at this point,” Rinne said on Thursday after allowing two first-period goals and getting pulled in record-time just 10:47 into the opening frame. “Tough to swallow, tough to understand. I can’t point out anything. Felt good, and no injuries and totally healthy. But total ups and downs throughout the playoffs. The biggest moment of the season, it’s a terrible feeling. You let your teammates down, and that’s what happened tonight. That’s tough to swallow.”
Rinne, 35 and scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after next season, struggled mightily at times and was on mediocre (save for Game 6) at others.
At Bridgestone Arena, where Nashville had been so good during the regular campaign, Rinne was at his worst, losing three of our in the series — pulled twice (and three times total) — and posting a horrendous .848 save percentage.
Fingers pointed squarely at Rinne alone would be crass, as P.K. Subban adequately pointed out after the game.
“Critics who want to criticize (Rinne) don’t know what they’re talking about,” Subban said as he vehemently defended his goaltender. “I don’t care if they played in the NHL or not. He’s the backbone of our hockey club. He’s one of the main reasons why we’re here. Could we all have been better tonight? Yeah. We didn’t do enough. I felt at times that they had their whole team going; we didn’t. I mean, it comes down to that. I think everybody could have played a lot better, could’ve given more. I’m sick and tired of people always talking about (Rinne).
“He’s the backbone of this team. He’s the reason we’re here. When you talk about top goaltenders in the League, it’s him, it’s (Montreal Canadiens’ Carey) Price, it’s (Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei) Vasilevskiy, it’s (Winnipeg Jets’ Connor) Hellebuyck. It’s these guys. You’re lucky to have one of them. We have to look at this as a team and get better as a team. Like I said, we have a lot of time to think about it, rest and recover and be ready to win a championship next year.”
If they do, their whole team will need to show up. Consistently. Like Subban said, the 18 skaters in front of Rinne didn’t hold up their end of the bargain either.
While Winnipeg’s top line showed up in the series — the trio of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor combined for 28 points over the series’ seven games — Nashville’s best showed up in spurts, and spurts don’t win series.
“Yeah I mean, it’s a dangerous group over there, you know?” defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “They won for a reason, they’ve got a lot of dangerous players, guys that got 40 goals and 90 points or whatever. So we have to be, as a group, responsible defensively as well as offensively. I mean, Game 7. It’s that close of a (series).”
But Nashville met its match.
The team came into the playoffs with 117 points in the regular season and a Presidents’ Trophy to show for their efforts. None of that matters though, its place now is only for context when talking about how and why it all went wrong.
In a nutshell, Nashville’s vaunted defense had no answer for Winnipeg’s rocket-fuelled offense. Nashville’s immovable object moved. The team that allowed the second-fewest goals in the regular season allowed the Jets to come into their barn and drop 19 on them to tie an NHL record. When the onslaught began, there was simply no answer to the unstoppable force.
And so it ended.
Predators head coach Peter Laviolette, now 5-3 in Game 7s as a bench boss, didn’t need many words when he offered a simple truth after the game.
“We ran into a good team, and they’re moving on.”