Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda... Predators Playoff Post-Mortem

The Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Nashville Predators 4 games to 2 in their first round matchup of the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the Predators, this series will be looked upon as one of missed opportunities that cost them a shot at a first round upset.

There is no doubt that the Blackhawks are a powerful and potent team, one that presented challenges to the Predators. The Predators showed that they could handle those challenges and had the potential to make this a very interesting series. A 4-1 win in the United Center in game one served notice that the Predators were going to make this a difficult series for the highly favored Blackhawks.

Trailing 1-0, the Predators scored what can be deemed a fluke goal as J.P. Dumont lofted a soft backhand shot toward the net. The puck took a funny bounce and squirted past Chicago goaltender Antti Niemi to tie the game. The Predators would build on this momentum and take a 4-1 victory with a rebound goal by Dumont and empty net goals by Jerred Smithson and Martin Erat.

The interesting aspect of this win was that this was the Predators first road playoff win in the history of the franchise.

The keys to this victory were solid goaltending by Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne; solid play by the Nashville defense, and an aggressive forecheck that kept Chicago from setting up effectively in the offensive zone.

All those positive characteristics disappeared in the second game of the series as Chicago turned the tables on the Predators and played the Predators game in a 2-0 shutout win. Rinne made some outstanding saves for the Predators to keep the game from getting out of hand, but the Predators never mounted a serious offensive challenge to the Hawks and Niemi.

Tied at one, the series shifted to Nashville as the Predators were in good shape against a putative Cup favorite.

The Predators would take a 2-1 series lead with a 4-1 victory over the Hawks. This time, there were no empty netters. Instead, there was balanced scoring and an aggressive attack that prevented the Blackhawks from entering the zone with speed. Once again, Rinne was very good in net, the defense exerted their will on the Blackhawks, and the offense got balanced scoring. Joel Ward, David Legwand, Shea Weber, and Martin Erat tallied for the Predators. Tied at 1 at the end of the first period, the Predators would notch two goals in the second and one in the third to ice the game.

Ahead 2-1 in the series and with game four at the Bridgestone Arena, the Predators had an opportunity to put the Hawks down two games and in a very difficult position.

Instead, it was the Blackhawks that rose to the occasion with a 3-0 win over the Predators. Once again, the Blackhawks turned the tables on the Predators and stymied their offense with solid defense and an aggressive forecheck. When the Predators got scoring opportunities, Niemi was able to clean up any chances.

Now tied at two games, the series shifted back to Chicago, and in game five, Chicago dominated for the first half of the game. The Predators opened well, with David Legwand getting the first goal of the game with a beautiful shot to the far side post with Joel Ward screening Niemi. From there, things fell apart for the Predators as the Blackhawks scored the next three goals and outshot the Predators 24-8.

With the Predators on the penalty kill late in the second period, the potent Hawk offense was swarming and looking to add to their advantage. A funny thing happened on the way to cruising to what appeared to be an easy victory for the Hawks. They gave up a short handed goal on the power play to make the score 3-2. The Predators were able to go in to the second intermission with a successful penalty kill, a score, and a bit of momentum.

That momentum carried over into the third period as Martin Erat tallied two goals to give the Predators a 4-3 lead. As the time in the period evaporated, it was apparent that Chicago was gripping their sticks tightly and the Predators were improbably going to win this game for a 3-2 series lead.

That all came crashing down in the final :20 seconds of the period. With Marian Hossa in the box for a five minute major for boarding, the Predators controlled the puck and appeared ready to burn up the remaining time on the clock. Martin Erat had the puck behind the Chicago net, and instead of just eating the puck and letting the time run off the clock, he amazingly threw the puck into the slot where it was controlled by Chicago. The started a breakout, and with :13 seconds on the clock, Patrick Kane scored as Joel Ward lost coverage on him at the side of the net. 13 seconds away from an amazing win, and instead the two teams were now headed to overtime.

The Predators had 3:37 of power play time (the carryover of  Hossa's penalty) to begin the overtime period. As it was, the Predators abysmal power play once again shot blanks. Hossa was able to cme out of the box and score the game winner just :10 seconds after his penalty expired. What should have been a 4-3 win for the Predators in regulation was now a heartbreaking 5-4 overtime loss.

In game six, the Predators fell behind in the first period 3-1. One of the goals was a freak goal, as Brent Seabrook was just attempting to dump the puck in the zone. Pekka Rinne, seeing this, skated behind his net to stop the puck. Instead, the puck hit the skate of Patrick Kane, who was going off the ice for a line change. The puck radically changed directions, and before Rinne could react back to the front of the net, found its way into the goal.

The Predators battled back to tie the game at 3, but Chicago would once again reclaim the lead with a power play goal. They would later add an empty net goal to make the final margin 5-3 and capture the series 4-2.

For the Predators, the series will be remembered as a series that presented opportunities to win games that were lost because of failure to capitalize on their advantages. Losing game five was heartbreaking. This was a game that the Predators should have won.

The Predators only managed one power play goal on 26 attempts. A timely goal with the man advantage could have swung momentum to the Predators in several of these contests.

The Predators will also rue the lack of production from some of their offensive stalwarts. Jason Arnott tallied two goals, both in game six. Otherwise, he was invisible in the first five games. Steve Sullivan competed hard, but was held without a goal. After scoring two goals in the first game, J. P. Dumont was held scoreless for the rest of the series.

Leading goal scorer Patric Hornqvist missed most of the series, playing ten minutes in game one and the entire game in game six. It was revealed after the series that Hornqvist had a broken left hand. Losing the leading scorer from the regular season certainly hurt the Predators offensive effort.

As painful as the loss of this series was, it was part of the learning experience for this team. They notched their first road playoff win. They found out they could not only compete with, but defeat one of the best teams in the Western Conference in a pressure packed playoff environment.

It is now time to look back on the pain of the loss of this series and realize what could have been.

It is also time to build on the potential and the growth that this team has shown. Use the pain of this loss and the lessons learned to get back to the playoffs and finally break through and win a series.

It's now time to take the next step. It's time to stop wondering about what could have been.

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