Bonus Hockey: When it needs to be more than 140 characters.

I haven’t posted since the Predators finished their season in Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals. I wasn’t sure how other Preds fans would take my rather laissez-faire attitude. You see, to me, it was all “bonus hockey.” Hockey that honestly had no business being there, but as long as it was, you rode the wave and enjoyed it for what it was. What it was, was eye-opening, tantalizing, joy filled, and galvanizing… in addition to being incredibly lucky, well-timed, and frankly, a bit fairy-tale-ish. The Preds were solid. Quite solid for the first two rounds, a bit more mortal in round three and good enough to be competitive, but over-matched at times in the final round. All in all, a hell of a ride.

Then came the aftermath. We got jobbed! This was all the officials fault! Sissons scored (remember that name for later in this blog-piece.) and the whistle blew, and it shoulda counted, and where’s the review, and what about that goal in Calgary, and the refs hate us, and so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby…

Two weeks before the end of the regular season it was not even fait accompli that the Preds would be IN the post season. Remember that? Like the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, the team came together and went on this amazing run, spearheaded by a hot goalie (in ’12, Quick… in ’17, Rinne.) The crowds got louder and louder and all of a sudden, Nashville was center stage. Everyone was talking Nashville, talking Predators, wearing Predators garb, putting Predators signs on their lawns and in their windows. The city was galvanized. The world seemed galvanized. The Preds were Cinderella and everyone wanted to attend the ball. Writers, pundits, broadcasters alike all proclaimed “NASHVILLE IS A HOCKEY TOWN.”

Well, guess what? Nashville made strides, absolutely… but to call it a “hockey” town? To me that’s a bit to the extreme. Here’s what Nashville is (and was, and will always be:) Nashville is a PARTY town. Nashville is a COMPETITIVE town. Nashville is a SPORTS town. All of the above. Top of the list. No argument. No question. But ask some of those people wearing Preds garb, or decorating their homes or cars with Preds flags and banners… Hey, who are the players on the team? You may get a “Pekka” out of them… you may even get a Mike Fisher or a Filip Forsberg. Some may mention Shea Weber or David Legwand, but If Nashville was a hockey town, there’d be more than 10-15,000 that could name the core four defensemen (and not spell Ekholm “Elkhome” as a number do on Preds Facebook Fan boards.) They’d know what icing is, or the difference between high sticking, and playing the puck with a high stick.

So it was Game Four of the third round of the post season, and the team was deadlocked against Anaheim. Two major forwards were lost to injury by game’s end. Mike Fisher’s concussion, and Ryan Johansen’s immediate thigh surgery. Both coming after forward Kevin Fiala’s broken leg, suffered earlier in the playoffs. With the two new losses, it appeared the Preds were expected to lay down and die against Anaheim, but they made adjustments, and substitutions, and found themselves winning the next two games, allegedly both certain defeats, and moved on to play Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Preds won two games, to the Penguins four. Who was credited with the game winning goal in both Nashville victories? That would be undrafted rookie Freddie Gaudreau, who had spent the better part of the last three seasons in Milwaukee. The kid had scored 9 goals in his first professional season, netting 4 in Milwaukee, and 5 in Cincinnati. The following year he scored 15 in Milwaukee. This past season, he had 25, and 3 more in the AHL playoffs, so his three in the Stanley Cup Finals put him at 31 goals this season. (Hold THAT thought.)

Then there’s 23 year-old winger, Pontus Aberg from Sweden. Drafted in the early part of the second round in a 2012 draft that included Colton Sissons and Jimmy Vesey, Aberg came to North America and got his game in order over time. In his first year, his 16 goals, 34 points were 5th on the Admirals. Next season he improved to 25 goals, 40 points, and this past season he lit the lamp 31 times in just 56 games for Milwaukee, and added three goals for the Preds. It may be too soon to call him a 30 goal scorer in the NHL, but his trajectory is not far off from that of Viktor Arvidsson.

And, let’s talk frankly for a minute about Viktor Arvidsson. In 2015-16, Arvy posted 8 goals and 8 assists in 56 regular season games for the Preds. He added a lone goal and assist in 14 playoff games, as well as eighteen points in 17 games for Milwaukee. I own the jersey in which he scored his first NHL goal. I am a huge fan. I was a believer that coach Laviolette UNDERUSED him for the better part of his rookie season. Virtually no power play time, no time with top 6 linemates, and the rap that he was too small and too easily moved off the puck to make a significant impact on the Nashville roster. Just five times during the 2015-16 season did Arvy log 15 minutes in a regular season game, and when the year was up, he tallied just one single power play point (a goal in a 5-2 loss at the tail end of March, 2016.)

At the start of this past season, these are facts: (a) Arvidsson was NOT considered a top 6 or even a POTENTIAL top 6 forward by the coaching staff or the majority of the fanbase, (b) After David Poile had signed Calle Jarnkrok to a 6 year, $12M contract at the end of the previous season, with full knowledge of the expansion draft forthcoming, the choice for Nashville was obvious: Forsberg, Johansen, Neal and Jarnkrok would be the four protected forwards, along with the top four defensemen and goaltender Rinne.

The first four games of the season saw Arvidsson in much the same role that he had the previous year. Averaging about 12 minutes a game, he found the score sheet with a goal in a loss to Chicago, and an assist in a loss at Detroit. Game five was the famous “food poisoning game,” and Arvidsson stepped up with two goals and 20 minutes of ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The roster stabilized a bit four days later as the club got pasted 6-1 by the Anaheim Ducks in Southern California, and Arvy was held off the scoreboard in just 13:20 of ice time. The next night the Kings hosted Nashville in a game that went into overtime, and Arvy was given just 11:51 of ice, but he made the best of it with a goal and an assist in a 3-2 OT loss. He had just a lone assist over the next six games with varying degrees of ice time, but it was a 5-0 win against the Ducks at Bridgestone where Arvy netted a pair of assists in 14 minutes of ice time that the confidence of Lavy started to kick in. Just six or seven times over the remainder of the season saw Arvy under the 15 minutes of ice time, including the penultimate game of the season, in Dallas, where Arvy delivered two goals (his 30th and 31st) and two assists in a 7-3 rout, with Viktor only needing 14:47 to get his job done. The “JOFA” line established, Arvidsson ended the season with 9 power play points and 7 shorthanded points, including 5 goals! Suddenly, two new facts were made obvious: (a) Arvidsson established himself with the coaching staff and a majority of the fan base. He had arrived, as witnessed by the huge number of shirts that joined mine in the arena on any game day, and (b) Poile was now faced with a much different decision come Expansion Draft Day: Neal? or Jarnkrok?

With Arvidsson locked into a top 3 forward spot for David Poile’s Predators, the choice was Neal’s production and term (1 year remaining @ $5M) vs. Jarnkrok’s upside and term (5 years remaining @ $2M) — to me, it was a no-brainer, and here’s where some incredibly ugly things were said within the fan base on Facebook, Twitter, etc. In a Twitter vote, 57% believed Neal was the player to be protected, but I never flinched leading the charge of the remaining 43%. Calle Jarnkrok brings far too many intangibles, and as a versatile forward who can play up and down the lines at either center or wing, his abilities made it clear to me that he was the keeper. I speak about the “culture” within the team’s room, and a cursory look at the roster shows an abundance of Swedes, Swiss and Finns. Jarnkrok and Forsberg were both acquired at a time of transition and the two became immediately close. Ekholm and Josi both became powerful NHL defensemen as part of this transition, and draft choices Fiala and Aberg added to this culture. Neal, while a very solid offensive player, and part of the team’s leadership group, was deemed expendable, though that’s where the line is drawn. If he was as essential to the team’s offense as most fans thought he was, why did Poile not choose to either sign him to an extension or trade him prior to allowing Vegas to pluck him up for nothing? Here’s a fact: Poile believes in his younger “next-tier” players. Aberg, Fiala, Watson and Sissons (as well as Gaudreau) should make big contributions to the team in 2017-18. Neal’s production (to me) was enigmatic. The guy was clearly one of the most gifted offensive snipers in the NHL for much of his time with Dallas, Pittsburgh and Nashville. BUT… everyone asks “How are you going to replace Neal’s thirty goals?” Here’s a couple of answers to that question. The first is that this past season, Neal’s thirty goals were actually twenty-three, which land closer to twenty than thirty, and his eight power play assists left him with just TEN even strength assists for the entire campaign. You think TEN assists won’t be made up by a group of forwards over the course of 82 games? You think scoring one goal in the team’s first 10 games, and two goals in the team’s last 10 games (both coming in the same game) is irreplaceable? James Neal has an amazing release. He and Los Angeles’ Jeff Carter are probably the most dangerous shooters within a split second of gathering the puck on their sticks. For SURE. It’s a treat when Neal connects on one of “those” goals, and they come in streaks, but if a player like Arvidsson could be given the chance to succeed over the course of a season, and raise his totals from 8 to 31, then let’s trust David Poile and Peter Laviolette and see what a healthy Fiala can do, what a matured Aberg can do, what a hungry Sissons can do, what a grateful Gaudreau can do… and throw in Watson, and possibly a Kamenev or a Trenin later in the season, if their trajectory warrants recall from Milwaukee. The experience gathered in the post season, playing “bonus hockey” gave us a glimpse of how these kids CAN play if given the chance. Will they all pan out? I’d like to think that they will all go on to legitimate NHL careers. Nine consecutive seasons of 20 goals or more, ala Neal? Perhaps not, but like guys who have seasons like Craig Smith usually does, the object is to stay OFF the milk carton. Play consistently with consistent line mates and keep working knowing you have something to prove, replacing a scorer as prolific as James Neal. Will Poile buckle and grab a free agent, or make a trade (that would probably include a guy like Smith) to acquire a scoring forward? It’s possible I suppose, but I guarantee he’s breathing a lot easier knowing he didn’t lose any of the young kids who were developed in the Nashville system over the past five years. The time has come for them to reprise their roles established during the playoffs, and show the NHL how strong and galvanized this team has become.

A linchpin will be the announcement from Fisher as to his status for the upcoming season, but I actually don’t doubt his wanting to return, and expect him to play a pivotal role, reprising his Captaincy in 17-18.

I expect to see:

Forsberg – Johansen – Arvidsson

Aberg – Jarnkrok – Fiala

Watson – Sissons – Salomaki

Wilson – Fisher – Smith (I don’t really expect this to be the “fourth” line)

Gaudreau, McLeod, (hopefully re-sign Harry Zolnierczyk)

Ellis – Josi

Subban – Ekholm

Weber – Irwin – Bitetto

Rinne – Saros

A TEAM I COULD MORE THAN LIVE WITH! BONUS HOCKEY ABOUNDS!

 

 

 

 

Siriusly… The Preds are in the Cup Finals too…

Dear SiriusXM Radio,

I’ve been a subscriber to your product, XM Radio (later to merge with Sirius) for a good 10 years… maybe 11 or 12, but I was definitely an “early adapter.”

I made friends with Dan Blakely, who was an early Program Director. I was even featured on an old “call-in and maybe we’ll use your message on the air” spot that said, “When I want to see my LA Kings in first place, I just turn my computer’s monitor upside down.” — They ran with that for a while, and then the Kings won a Stanley Cup.

After Blakely exited, there was Joe Thistle, and while we didn’t become “buds,” he replied to my occasional emails, tweets, Facebook posts, whatever.

Now, from time to time, I have had conversation with a myriad of guys (and gal) on the station. Scott Laughlin, Steve Kouleas, Nick Alberga, Michele Sturino, Mick Kern, Peter Berce (perhaps he replaced Thistle) have all liked the occasional tweet, and/or taken my calls on the air and we’ve talked hockey. I’ve enjoyed chipping away, 20 seconds at a time, my 15 minutes of fame. (Believe me, I use the term “fame” QUITE loosely.)

So, here we are, the Nashville Predators, the lowest ranked regular season team to squeeze its way into the NHL post-season, just two wins away from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup. The channel is buzzing with hockey talk, interviews, special guests, and of course, calls from all across North America. I generally only listen in my car, and today I was only in my car for perhaps 45 minutes or so. I know that after the afternoon programming they had play-by-play of the AHL’s Calder Cup game, and then replays of the “Power Play,” and their guests included Kelly Hrudey and Ray Ferraro.

I just want to go on record that in the time spent listening, I NEVER heard the NAME of a Nashville player. Not once! I heard 2/3 of the Penguins roster, and at any moment I expected to learn what Pens 4th line winger Josh Archibald had for breakfast today!

Crosby came to the party. Malkin was invisible. Kessel has to shoot more. They’re missing Letang, the official beverage of French Astronauts. Daley is banged up. Schultz is banged up. Jake Guentzel wasn’t on the team last year. Dumolin is the best defenseman they have. Bonino is hurt. Kunitz. Hainsey. Rust. Sheary. of course, Murray, Fleury. Seriously, it never stopped.

How about “Phil Kessel has 30 less shots than he had last year at this time?” HOW ABOUT NASHVILLE’S EXCELLENT TEAM DEFENSE? How about a little praise for guys like Jarnkrok, Gaudreau, Arvidsson, Ekholm? I’m sure if I had listened a little more I might have heard a cursory Pekka Rinne or P.K. Subban mention, but it’s like “Well, Pekka was good in Nashville, but now he goes back to Pittsburgh.” Or, maybe we hear about the tremendous contribution to a Montreal Children’s Hospital that Subban has made. It’s MADDENING I TELL YOU.

You think there are NO Nashville stories? How about talking about the decision that Poile has to make next week at the Expansion table? Does he offer up James Neal? Calle Jarnkrok? Colton Sissons? Pontus Aberg? Austin Watson? Colin Wilson? Craig Smith? or does he pull another George McPhee Jedi mind trick and get Vegas to grab Matt Irwin in an effort to get a piece of the Nashville defensive puzzle? Kinda like in the glory days of the New Jersey Devils, when adding a guy like Willie Mitchell meant unlocking a treasure trove of secrets from Jacques Lemaire’s warchest.

Maybe we could hear a little more about Filip Forsberg, who in the past three seasons has 105 goals between the regular and post-seasons, which during a quick cursory look is more than either Malkin (103) OR Kessel (90.)

How about a little discussion about the newly 37-year-old Mike Fisher, the team’s Captain? Succeeded Shea Weber, and in his first year as the team’s leader finds himself in a Stanley Cup Final series for the second time in his career, ten years after being a part of an Ottawa team that got dismantled by Ducks whose names included Getzlaf, and Perry, two guys he helped dismantle just a couple weeks earlier.

I realize the world revolves around Pittsburgh, and satellite radio is required by law to mention the city and their hockey team at least 18 times an hour, whereas Nashville is limited to a maximum of 3 times in the same amount of time, but the predictability of the conversation today has reached a breaking point for a guy like me.

I have ridiculed Preds fans who constantly bombard Facebook boards with conspiracy theories about on-ice officials prejudice, NBC announcer prejudice, National hockey blogger prejudice, and I’ve scoffed…mightily! But, today it became crystal clear to me. These people may actually have an argument (at least about the media.) No one is giving them the kind of credit they are due. Sure there are two games  left to be won by one of these two remaining teams, and it may take three games to decide who hoists and who doesn’t, but one of those teams won it last year, and the other was barely given a chance to finish that Conference Final round after number one pivot Ryan Johansen (and Capt. Fisher) were lost to injury. No chance. Game Over. It was Anaheim that was supposed to be here for all the talking heads… and before that, it was St. Louis, and of course, when the playoffs started, it was Chicago, who were going to WIN IT ALL according to oddsmakers in Vegas! Ptui! I wish I’d placed a bet 🙂

The Nashville Predators are the story here, and every time you remind us that Matt Cullen had a bunion on his #3 toe, or although Kris Letang had his neck operated on, there’s still a faint glimmer of hope he could play in Game 7, or that Carter Rowney and Carl Hagelin are so fast that the old two-niner, Phil Bourque sometimes confuses them with an Amtrak Nor-easter that leaves Penn Station at 6am and arrives in Bahsten 15 minutes before it left. It’s MADDENING. Holy Maatta! Takin’ It To The Streit! Here’s the real news.

Peter Laviolette has done a brilliant job. Phil Housley and Kevin McCarthy are two GLUE guys. Pete Weber is the best radio play-by-play guy left in this season’s arsenal. Terry Crisp no longer has the tie collection he had in Calgary. I am a season ticket holder who is paying 113 dollars to see a game that the guy sitting next to me is paying almost 4,000 dollars to see. THAT’S NEWS. No outdoor game (yet) – A great presentation at last year’s All-Star game, and now a BRILLIANT Stanley Cup Final. Sure, you’ve made cursory mentions of the fans, the noise and the presentation, but barely a peep about a guy named Aberg who spent most of the year in Milwaukee. A guy named Irwin who couldn’t even MAKE a Boston Bruins 2015-16 team that ran through 193 defensemen between the pre-season and the ensuing games that followed. A guy named Zolnierczyk which is obviously Polish for GLUE. A guy named Smith who spent more time on milk cartons this season than he did in box scores. TALK ABOUT NASHVILLE. If you don’t, I may have to call you at some point today, because I can probably come up with 20 more line items that all add up to what the REAL story is!

 

Preds Fans: SHUT UP… and stay LOUD!

Face it, Preds fans… you’re on the national stage now. Barry Melrose says it’s the MOST entertaining place to see a game. He’s NEVER had more fun! They are all there, to a tee… every writer, announcer (save for the one moron from KDKA in Pittsburgh who tweeted that both Columbus and Washington were louder) EVERYONE  is on the bandwagon du Nashville, and if the series goes back to Pittsburgh tied, no one will forget the devastating swing in momentum caused by the crowd’s insistence to set the Predators alarm clocks to WAKE UP at the beginning of period two in game three.

Sure Nashville outshot the Pens 12-6 in the opening frame, but it was Pittsburgh who seemed to have a lot of the momentum, and thank you Pekka Rinne for taking a page out of Archie Bell’s playbook, and “tightening up” after the goal by Jake Guentzel less than three minutes into the contest.

Speaking of Pekka, here’s your first shut up. OK, is everybody standing? If you thought Pekka Rinne would be Coach Laviolette‘s choice to start game three, SIT DOWN. Now, the rest of you, and there are quite a few… WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING? Forget the fact that you pay this guy 7.5M to stop pucks, and he has for over a decade. Forget the fact that your backup goaltender hasn’t seen actual game used rubber from the start of a game for about two months. Forget the fact that after the Chicago series, after the St. Louis series, and after the Anaheim series, one man consistently saved the bacon at the Monell’s buffet of Preds hockey life… that man is Pekka Rinne, and if you BELIEVED crap like “he can’t win against Pittsburgh, he’s NEVER won against Pittsburgh,” well, NOW he has. And, he will again. Maybe even three more times. Then how foolish will you have looked? Hell, how foolish do you look now? Juuse Saros is a hell of a prospect, but nothing more. You wouldn’t have been calling for Carter Hutton, or the guy who made the opening night roster as the backup goalie, who you ALL had faith in when he won the job (cough, Marek Mazanec)… Learn something about hockey culture. To a MAN in that dressing room from the Head Coach to the guy who picks up dirty socks and jock straps and throws ’em in the wash, PEKKA RINNE is the man called upon AT HOME to bring the cup closer to Nashville.

OK, you can all stand up again, start cheering. Let’s talk about faceoffs. Oooh, they’re so important, right? Who won faceoffs last night? Crosby (15 of 26), Cullen (12 of 20), Rowney (7 of 12) and, for the good guys? the number one faceoff man the entire night… for BOTH teams… COLTON IS A SISSONS! Yup 11 of 17, almost 65%… Fisher? 10 of 21, Jarnkrok 6 of 18. Throw in Malkin’s 2 of 9 and that’s where you can take advanced analytics and put them somewhere neatly besides the first four letters of that word. Out the door. Preds dominate the game and lose more faceoffs than they win… but the KEY wins. Ah, yes. Sissons is a monster, and will continue to be because he has great hockey lineage, and In the face of a debilitating injury to number one center Ryan Johansen, has stepped up and done a job that has produced goals, assists, faceoff wins, and solid work on the cycle, down low. Let’s hope George McPhee is busy watching Filip Forsberg and crying in Martin Erat‘s beer.

Let’s talk for a minute about James Neal. Some of you think I’m nuts when I say he will be exposed in the expansion draft, but the numbers indicate that it has to be that way. However, don’t think I don’t think that David Poile is doing some voodoo-magik to keep his team in tact. There will be some very tempting names on the Preds protected list, but while I wouldn’t expect to see any of the “high priced” Nashville forwards (Neal – 5m, Smith, Wilson – 4m) on the Knights opening night roster, I do think one of those three can easily be flipped for more assets come Entry Draft day. Neal, of course, is the juiciest proposition, but he has just the one year left on his deal, whereas Wilson and Smith each have a few. Then there’s that extra layer of Sissons, Watson and Aberg… tempting, no? I digress, but it had to have been sweet to get on the scoresheet last night with such a key goal. Neal is a solid weapon in the Preds arsenal, but each team, in the Stanley Cup finals, or not, does lose a player to Las Vegas, and the intrigue is building to a feverish crescendo.

Good to see Laviolette come to his senses and go with speed for game 3. The addition of Zolnierczyk and Parenteau didn’t tell a huge story in the box score, but their play was spirited and error free for the most part. Expect to see them remain in the lineup for game 4. Duh.

One guy I’m sorry hasn’t had a sniff is Miikka Salomaki. Chatting about him last night, as to his future with the Preds moving forward, I can only say that this injury year came at a tough time, with so many Preds forwards taking steps towards full time employment in the NHL. Not sure how it shakes out for 17-18, but you know Fiala will be ready for full time duty (when healthy) and a number of RFA’s should be tendered deals (Gaudreau, Aberg, Watson) and then, on top of that, throw in names like Kamenev, Trenin and even a potential surprise like Emil Pettersson… it’s going to be a very crowded camp with competition for the few spots remaining on the roster.

So, here we are, Nashville, center stage, and all the fan whining about poor officiating, Chicago bias, St. Louis bias, Anaheim bias, Pittsburgh bias, East coast bias, throw it all out the door or window. Put your catfish where your mouth is and EAT THIS ALL UP. Everyone loves Nashville. Hockey fans across North America… Hell, hockey fans around the WORLD have adopted our home team, and here’s the deal. They are HOCKEY fans, so this little town called Smashville is now unavoidably the place to be early in June as the 2016-17 season is winding down. Locally, we still have to endure the idiot behind me in Section 207 who yells “SHOOT IT” every time a Preds player has the puck in the offensive zone. We still have fans who think a rookie goalie should supersede a veteran at the most crucial time of our playoff lives, and just for good measure, we still have fans that believe Shea Weber > P.K. Subban (and I’m sure his breath is better, too) but ultimately we have been forced to grow up quickly and know that anything a bandwagon local doesn’t know about hockey, he or she makes up for it with an enthusiasm and an excitement that is so contagious that even Barry Melrose thinks this is the greatest place on earth. Today, it is! Go Preds!

The Preds in 2017: What it was like, what happened, what it’s like now

(This post was written on the 2nd of March, and accidentally never posted. Accidentally, because it was never finished.)

 

On January 1st of this year, the Nashville Predators woke up to a new year and an old predicament. Expected to be a serious contender for the Stanley Cup this season, and coached by the popular Peter Laviolette, who had been given a two-year extension early in the season, the team was on the wrong side of the post-season line.

The Preds sat with 38 points after 36 games. Dallas with 39, Winnipeg with 37, all were on the outside looking in, as Calgary (42) and Los Angeles (40) were “in” as wild card teams in the West.

James Neal was leading the team in goals with 14. Ryan Johansen had 27 points to pace the team, but only 13 of those points came at even strength. Viktor Arvidsson was the team’s first half revelation with 10 goals (besting his full season rookie total of 8) and 24 points, and Filip Forsberg, who had just two goals in October and November, added 6 in December to move towards respectability though seemed a longshot to best or even reach his 2015-16 total of 33 (when he only had ONE goal in October and November.)

On the blueline, Roman Josi had 19 points, but was an uncharacteristic -4. His 2016-17 partner Ryan Ellis had 12 points and was +6. P.K. Subban, out with an injury had played 29 of the team’s first 36 games, and despite a -11, had 7 goals and 18 points to pace all Predator rearguards.

In goal, Pekka Rinne was 13-10-5 with a 2.53 GAA and a .915 save pctg. Juuse Saros came up from Milwaukee and established himself as both the first legitimate backup to Pekka in quite some time, and an early revelation with his effective and efficient play. Saros’ first six games gave him a rather unremarkable 3-2-1 record, but had a spectacular 1.16 GAA and an unworldly .957 save percentage. Third goaltender Marek Mazanec had a couple of unspectacular starts and was 0-2, 4.73 and .839

Some team stats: Goals For: 101 (ranked 16th), Goals Against: 97 (ranked 14th), Shots For: 1156, Against: 1068. Power Play: 20.3 (ranked 10th), Penalty Kill: 81.3 (ranked 16th)

It was time for some balls to drop and to scream HAPPY NEW YEAR!

January and February were months that saw the Preds right the ship and turn things in a direction that led to more stable waters.

(January stats)

Jan to Feb.jpg

(February stats)

Preds Feb to Present.jpg

What this meant was some stability that led to the Preds gathering points and cementing themselves into a post-season berth, with a pretty strong foothold on the 3rd seed in the Central Division.)

The team took advantage of being the fifth highest scoring ream in Jan/Feb to move into the 8th spot in the NHL for the season, averaging 2.95 goals per game. However, with the insurgence of goal scoring came a new, startling lack of detail in the defensive zone, and while the team dropped to 23rd out of the 30 NHL teams in goals given up, for the season this slotted them into the very middle-of-the-pack at 16th, averaging 2.76 goals surrendered. Shots saw similar trends, as the team had the most shots on goal in Jan/Feb (at 840) but gave up 840 as well in the similar period, which was the 3rd most given up in the league. This put them at 5th in shots for the season (at 31.7 per game) but while they were eighth best from the start of the season, through December, their Jan/Feb totals dipped them all the way to fifteenth, giving up 30.3 shots per game.

In contrast, from a shots given up perspective, last year’s Preds team ranked number one in least opponent’s shots on goal allowed at 27.3. The 2014-15 version of the Preds finished sixth, at 28.3, and the 2013-14 team (Trotz’ last season) had them at eleventh with 28.9 allowed. So, to be up over 30 this season is cause for concern when discussing goaltending, and defensive positioning in the defensive zone.

How is the team that was ranked number ONE in shots given up now the number TWENTY EIGHT team in this category over two months worth of games in 2017?

The answer could be held within the loins of the streamlined new goalie pants the NHL has trotted out in mid-season, but more likely it’s in a “Chinese Fire Drill” approach to the transition from offense back to defense that the Predator skaters have enlisted as a substitute to a more sublimated chalkboard system outlined by the coaching staff.

If your name is Matt Irwin, or Yannick Weber, it’s just a matter of time before you are fully exposed. Granted, with the full health of the top four defensemen, you are limited in your exposure, your numbers are trending in the wrong direction. As the trade deadline blew through the NHL on March 1st, few were calling for the Predators, and GM David Poile to grab a defenseman. In fact, Poile himself was on the hot seat as the Colorado Avalanche were looking for Mattias Ekholm as the focus of a package the team was looking for in exchange for star center Matt Duchene.  In the end, Poile stood firm in not giving away another of his prized blue-line. Giving up Seth Jones 13 months earlier in the Ryan Johansen deal was the first ding in the armor of a defensive corps that allowed the fewest shots in the NHL. Granted, Johansen was the top line center that the team seemingly needed to bring the offense to the next level, but in losing Jones, the Predators started to expose the lack of depth that the team had in terms of quality NHL defenders. Off-season free agent acquisitions Irwin and Weber were brought in, in addition to veteran Matt Carle in the hopes of patching together a third pairing that would keep the team’s stingy D just as stingy.

The addition of P.A. Parenteau was Poile’s only move on deadline day, but could point to forwards Cody McLeod and Vern Fiddler as fourth line additions that brought grit to the Preds lineup. With the October injury to Miikka Salomaki, and the seemingly ineffective play of veteran Mike Ribeiro (jettisoned to the club’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee) and opening night fourth line winger Cody Bass, the team cycled through a number of options, such as free agent acquisitions Reid Boucher and Derek Grant, and Milwaukee callups, Freddie Gaudreau, Harry Zolnierczyk and Pontus Aberg. None have actually put a lock on the role, despite some gritty efforts by Zolnierczyk, occasional strong play from Colton Sissons, and now the Fiddler-McLeod combination.

(January/February combined stats)
preds-jan-to-present

(All season combined stats)
screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-12-40-02-amThis post was written on the 2nd of March, and accidentally never posted. Accidentally, because it was never finished.

Today this post serves as a calling card to the Predators post-season run. Fact is, it was a very lackluster first half for the team and signs of life showed in January and February. Stability crept in during March and come April it was unclear that the Preds had the goods to do what they’ve done, but they’ve done it. And, they’ve done it losing Kevin Fiala, Craig Smith, Ryan Johansen and Mike Fisher for varying lengths of time. Hats off to the Nashville Predators for proving that hockey is a team sport, and that on any given night, any one of the players dressed could be the difference maker. Four more wins and a real difference will have been made.

I consider this a charmed life…

I am a hockey fan. I know of nothing else that makes me happier than to be sitting within a snowball’s throw of some ice, players, sticks, gloves, puck, etc.

I went to my very first NHL game in New York City at the “old” Madison Square Garden. Thanks to the internet, I found the boxscore from the game. It’s hard to read, but it was on my 10th birthday, and I got to see Red Berenson get three points… THREE OF JUST SEVEN POINTS HE SCORED THAT SEASON.

Over the next decade I discovered pot, booze, pills, and the stuff teenagers in the early 70’s in New York City made more of a priority than sports… ROCK AND ROLL!

I got a job in the music industry in 1971 and began working records to radio stations. Had some success, moved to California in 1975, down to LA from SF in January, 1976, and there I fell in love with hockey all over again, and the Los Angeles Kings were my constant source of companionship. Literally. By 1978 I was 23, a Vice President of Sire Records, and constantly hanging with members of the Kings. Smoking pot, drinking copious amounts of Molsons and Labatts, and meeting guys like Pete Weber, who didn’t indulge in any of that crap, so far as I knew, but he and Bob Miller were the Kings radio and television announcers before the decade turned. I never missed a Kings game, unless I was on the road. I had fierce fan/player battles with a moronic hulk of a defenseman named Dave Hutchison. Not to say this guy was stupid or anything, but he did get knifed by a hooker on a Vancouver street corner on an off day, while the Kings were waiting to face the Canucks. Needless to say, Dave went on IR with a “hand laceration.”

My biggest brush with fame in that era was when Rogie Vachon ALMOST became the first NHL goalie to be credited with a goal.

In the early 80’s, the Kings had a fantastic team … in the regular season, but in the first round of the playoffs (Best of THREE, if you can believe that) they took a dump. I still have a BOX of unused Kings playoff tickets. I think the opening round was 11 dollars!

In the late 80s, while living in NYC, I met NHL executives, Stu Hackel and Gerry Helper (among a few) and Hackel had me help edit the NHL Guide and Record Book a couple of times, and I am pretty sure my name showed up in the book at least once. It was a big deal for a nerd like me.

Perhaps not as big as the 14 minutes of my 15 minutes of fame that was used up when I had insider knowledge on the impending Wayne Gretzky trade to Los Angeles, and being the crazed-myopic Kings fan that I was, I hated to think they would mortgage the future, and felt the trade needed to be stopped. I called on my pal Stu (Hackel) and gave him my intel, and he led me to Glenn Cole in Montreal and Steve Dryden/Bob McKenzie in Toronto. Check the issue of the Hockey News from August, 1988 with the headline “The Trade,” and read about a “New York Music Exec that called to ask us to check on a rumor…” LOL, thank God my nefarious plans were thwarted, right? 🙂

I shuttled back and forth between New York and LA over the next twenty years or so. I was in the building in Toronto, when the LA Kings beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in that semi-final in 1993 that sent the Kings to the Cup finals against Montreal, and if Marty McSorley hadn’t had that illegal curve on his stick, I’d have seen my first Cup Finals.

In 1998-99 I attended my first Stanley Cup Finals game, but had to do so in Buffalo, where the Dallas Stars ended up winning the cup, on a controversial call in triple overtime.

the 1999-2000 season I was attending a boatload of New Jersey Devils games and got to see Game One of the final between the Devils and the Stars. It was a rollicking 7-3 Devils win, and although I did not get to be in attendance to celebrate the Cup (the Devils won in 6 IN Dallas,) I considered it my FIRST “Cup” team.

I moved back to LA in mid-2000, and my love affair with the Kings began again. Additionally I started flying to Manchester, NH to see the Monarchs, the team’s AHL affiliate, and my obsession with some moderate game-worn jersey collecting began.

The Kings were pretty terrible, and as dedicated as I was, I took to the internet to rip them to shreds on a few (read: thousands of) occasions. I wrote game stuff for letsgokings dot com, and was present at the 2003 NHL Entry Draft in Nashville, where I was the first to interview Dustin Brown, after his selection by the Kings that day.

I saw my first NHL game in Nashville five years later, and as I see here, I wrote about it.

Prior to that, however, a couple years before, I was finally in the building for a Cup victory… IN ANAHEIM, no less. I was one of the few Kings fans that also happened to love the Ducks. I love hockey. That Ducks team was INCREDIBLE. Sami Pahlsson, my God, the man was a beast! Pahlsson-Moen-R. Niedemayer were the best checking line I had ever seen. It was June 6, 2007 when, sitting in the absolute last row at the Honda Center I witnessed my first Cup. Glorious.

The NHL entry draft was in Los Angeles in 2010, and my friend Stu helped get me a writing gig with NHL.com — Do you know how cool it was to open my mailbox and see a check from the National Hockey League for services rendered? I know I was giddy for a while… and there was a YouTube clip to prove it. (ABSOLUTELY NOT SAFE FOR WORK IN THE FINAL FIVE SECONDS.)

The Kings needed a Cup badly. It was a 45 year wait, and I’d suffered through an awful lot of them. Finally, I got to witness the incredible. The team was not only the “8th seed” in the West, but just a month before season’s end, we were all so happy we thought we didn’t have to waste money on playoff tickets. LOL. Well, that changed in a hurry. First came a 6 game winning streak, then a couple losses, then three of four wins before the final two losses in the regular season but, with overtimes and shootouts, the Kings picked up 21 of the final 28 points in the regular season and grabbed a playoff berth. Sixteen wins later, I cried for at least a full 24 hours. Tears of joy as Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter, Vyacheslav Voynov (so the linchpin) and a cast of characters (Penner, Richards, Scuderi, Mitchell, King, Nolan, … the whole thing was surreal) made Los Angeles a TRUE hockey market from that moment forward.

There was a lockout and I moved to Nashville a day before my friend Rich Clune, in January of 2013. I knew Gerry Helper, and certainly knew of his boss, David Poile. My love for Poile was immense, because it was he and Kings GM Dean Lombardi that worked out the waiver deal that brought Clune back to the NHL, where for better or worse, he would toil under Trotz, making friends and fans, and continuing to impress management with his attitude and his work ethic on and off the ice. I learned a little more about the behind-the-scenes mechanics that the GMs occasionally go through to help a marginal player like Dicky to get regular playing time in the show. Teammates and fans both grew to love Clune, but Laviolette’s regime brought sweeping change, and after two shifts on opening night, Rich was swept to Milwaukee, never to appear in Nashville again.

I’m a hockey nerd. Here, NHL (and Kings) broadcaster, my old pal, Jim Fox and Bob Miller get to poke a little fun at how nerdy I can get. YouTube clip here.

This year has been my fifth season in Smashville, and I’ve made both friends and enemies. I sit in 207 with WONDERFUL people I have become very close to (waving to Linda, Jordana, Leslie, Sue, Steve, Valerie and of course, my dear friends, Lee and Amy and their great kids, Jack and Caroline.)

There’s so much more, but it’s 2:30am and I promised a friend I would be up at 8 and make a drive to spend some important time with him. Tonight has been insane. The loudest I have ever heard and NHL building. In fact, throw in a lot of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and whatever concerts, and it was the loudest arena I’ve ever had the privilege to attend. My head is still ringing.

The Preds were not the better team tonight, and to beat Pittsburgh (yeah, I know… it’s not necessarily Pittsburgh, but come on…) they have to play a whole lot better… and they CAN.

I wrote before Game 5 that it was time for the fans to “buck up,” because losing Johansen and Fisher was not going to deter an entire team. Plenty of people thought the Predators would lay down and die after those two injuries, but I was CERTAIN they would not. Look at the opportunities given to guys like Sissons, Watson, Gaudreau, and Jarnkrok… Move ’em up, move ’em in, MOVE DUCKS OUT! It was that simple.

After each goal tonight it sure sounded like… HEY!   HEY!!  HEY!!! USED DUCK!

If you can squelch a few Ducks, this team surely has the capability of taking down some Penguins! More before the Series starts, but thank you for reading. I just wanted to let you know how grateful I am to have hockey in my life.

MN

OK, Preds fans… Buck up! Injuries happen…

The Pittsburgh Penguins tied their series with the Ottawa Senators last night. Defensemen Brian Dumolin and Olli Maatta each scored their first goal of the post-season. A third defenseman, Chad Ruhwedel played six minutes and exited with an injury. In fact, and Preds fans should identify with this, when Bobby Ryan hit Ruhwedel, knocking him to the ice, where he lay, as defense partner Ian Cole exacted revenge on Ryan. The outcome: No penalty for charging on Ryan, penalty on Cole for roughing. Ruhwedel gone from the game in the first period. Pens skate five D. None of those five defensemen wore the name LETANG or SCHULTZ on the back of their jerseys. Up front? How about injuries to Kuhnhackl, Rust and Patrick Hornqvist? Players in the lineup included Josh (10 games) Archibald and Carter (27 games) Rowney. Winning is possible if you play within the team’s structure and execute the coaching game plan.

Losing Ryan Johansen is terrible. And, as terrible as he was through most of the regular season, he was a complete beast in the post season, and very likely the straw that stirred the drink. Be honest, people, had you seen Johansen play with this kind of intensity on a Wednesday in Winnipeg? This Ryan Johansen hit, and got hit, passed and received passes, intimidated when he was faced with intimidation. This Ryan Johansen I LOVED. But alas, he is gone. Thigh surgery… I’d love to know more. I’m not sure I’ve heard of coming off the ice, bypassing the dressing room, going straight to the hospital for thigh surgery. But, it is what it is, and now, just as the Pens did, the Preds need to put on their big boy skates and go out and do damage in Anaheim tonight!

While we don’t know what Lavy has in store for us from a roster perspective, we know that we have multiple options. Putting Calle Jarnkrok with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson seems likely. Is it as dominant a unit? Perhaps not, but both Forsberg and Arvidsson seem to will most of their chances with their feet. Either one is capable of going solo, ala Stevie Nicks when Fleetwood Mac don’t want to tour. Both guys have multiple weapons in their arsenals and all Jarnkrok has to do is play his game and make sure one of those two wingmen have the puck heading into the Duck zone. And, of course, what has to happen THEN is that SOMEONE GETS TO THE FRONT OF THE NET AND TAKES AWAY GIBSON’S EYES. He stops virtually everything he sees!

Johansen was on the ice as the Preds have gone 1 for 17 on the power play. Losing Johansen may not help, but it may force the coaches into some alternate thinking that can hardly get any worse than the power play has looked. This series would be OVER if the Preds had capitalized on their man advantage chances, and “BULLSHIT” NBC announcers, it’s NOT the Ducks penalty kill being special, it’s the Preds total inability to bring the puck into the offensive zone and station a body that isn’t 5’8, 180 (as much as I love  you, little guy) in front of the Duck net. Simple. Johansen fed the puck, yes, but with no traffic… who cares.

Then, there are the remaining three lines. Do you add Kamenev to the mix? General wisdom thinks “no.” I think a kid who was 2nd round, 42nd pick in 2014, who scored over 20 goals for MKE this season has just as much chance to have success, if not more, than 7th round, 205th overall pick in the SAME draft, Ondrej Kase, who granted spent 53 regular season games in Anaheim (compared to Kamenev’s 2 with Nashville,) but the talent level is at worst comparable, and at best a landslide for our guy. Let him play. Let him play a bunch. Especially on the man advantage. Tell him to keep his feet moving. Wonderful things just might happen.

Wonderful things probably won’t happen if it’s just more of the “put Fiddler out there” — while I admire his veteran presence and willingness to walk through walls for this team, we need speed and creativity. Maybe put Neal up on the line with Jarnkrok and Forsberg, and let Kamenev play with Arvidsson. Who knows. Lots of options, but the bottom line is this:

The Preds are not dead because of these losses. The Preds have withstood injuries in the past. I already stated that 1 for 18 on the PP happened with Johansen and with Fisher. You still have five Preds to four Ducks. KEEP THE FEET MOVING AND PUT A MAN IN THE CREASE.

Is the horse dead yet? GO PREDS! YOU CAN DO THIS!!!

My truth about the Nashville Predators Ryan Johansen

I’ve thought hard enough and long enough about how to approach the subject of Ryan Johansen. You see, most of the Preds fans that have trolled me on the internet give me constant flack for being hypercritical through the majority of this 2016-17 season. I’ve never backed down, and constantly reiterated what I was saying, which was NOT that he “sucks” or anything even remotely close to such crude and inaccurate appraisals of his obvious talent. What I have said was that he was too soft a player to be considered the “big” number-one center the team traded young stud defenseman Seth Jones for. Ah… Seth Jones. This is where it all starts for me. David Poile’s decision to pull the trigger on such a major deal in the hopes he could jumpstart an anemic Nashville offense, and give Columbus a fixture on the blueline for the next decade. I loved Seth Jones. I appreciated how strong Roman Josi’s play was, and I loved Ryan Ellis when 90% of all Preds fans thought him to be too small, and a defensive liability. I liked Mattias Ekholm, but Seth Jones… there was the true prize. He was tough, mobile, and had skills with the puck. I knew Poile had to give to get, but what he was getting in return was a guy who had a monster third pro season in Columbus, and then saw his numbers ever so slightly disintegrate as the team had little success with him in that top pivot spot. Never mind the fact that he hamstrung the team on a deal that would pay him 6M in the final year of a three year term (which also happens to be this season), but Poile would be forced to pay, because losing Seth Jones for an 18-month rental would almost be the equivalent of Washington’s GM George McPhee giving up a young Filip Forsberg for an old Marty Erat, a trade that will haunt McPhee until his dying days.

So, the regular season ended and fans continued to support the theory that 14 goals and 47 assists were enough, when coupled with the fact that his second-half linemates, Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson had blown the roof off of Bridgestone Arena, and became one of the most dominant lines in the National Hockey League. 14 goals were a far cry from the 33 that Johansen had scored three years prior, and the two years in between were totals of 26 and 14, so while the slide had leveled out this season, it was painfully obvious that Johansen was becoming a pass first pivot. My arguments always surrounded his play without the puck. You were not going to send him into battle for a loose puck and expect to see him come out with it. No, Johansen rarely found himself anywhere near the walls, and almost never behind either net, happily settling somewhere in open ice, after peeling off from an opponent in the hope of a turnover that would give him and his admittedly excellent vision a chance to move the puck to one of the heavy lifters that flank him. One of those heavy lifters standing about 8 inches and 40 pounds less than him. Yes, Arvidsson’s heart in Johansen’s body would produce perhaps the league’s best and richest hockey player, whereas Johansen’s heart in Arvidsson’s body would be playing Friday night beer league hockey in Kamloops.

The team played a horribly uninspired road game against the St. Louis Blues to finish up the confusing, uninspired regular season. The team clung to the second and final wildcard spot in the Western Conference, and would meet the Chicago Black Hawks in round one of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. The company line was that there were far more positives over the course of the second half of the season than negatives. No player, to a man, was intimidated by Chicago. Bring it on, they said. Skeptically, few gave them a chance. I didn’t make predictions, but I did reply to people who picked Chicago in 6, by saying that if that were the case, I’d *prefer* they ended it in 5 because (a) I had NO intention of watching the Smug Hawks glad-handing my team of choice at Bridgestone Arena, and (b) I could find better uses for the money than watch another disappointing season come to an inevitable end.

But, a strange thing happened. The guy I had maligned for the past 8 months suddenly became the player David Poile had hoped to acquire. Two way, tough play meant frustration of the highest order for Black Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. Epic battles including forearm shivers and crushing body blows always saw Johansen the victor, and Toews the victim. Additionally, the line (heretofore known as the JOFA line) seemingly brought its play up a level higher, as if that was possible. Throw in three other lines that did virtually nothing wrong, and almost everything right for four games. A Preds defense that limited Chicago to few serious chances in each game, and a Finnish goaltender not named Juuse Saros (a 21 year old rookie, who was seemingly annointed by the “braintrust” (read: fanbase) as the goalie of the PRESENT, not the future.) With Pekka Rinne playing sensational hockey (a number of nationally vocal pundits said it was his best hockey in a few seasons, but they forgot November of 2016, earlier this season, when Rinne was annointed NHL’s First Star/Goaltender Of The Month.) It was a messy December that brought Rinne back to Earth, and set the stage for many of the Saros believers to continuously harp on the subject that our franchise goalie was now past his peak, and needed more and more rest, to the tune of an old-folks home and a rocking chair. Sure, Rinne was taller than Saros, but his reflexes had atrophied to the point where he’d have to be replaced by the only man on the team who actually looks up to Viktor Arvidsson!

But, back to Johansen, and the Predators that eventually SWEPT the Chicago Black Hawks. What a performance. What a 180 degree turnaround. And, what’s funny is hearing all the writers and broadcasters saying that Johansen had truly upped his game to a level never seen by Preds fans prior to this series. Oh? Really? Now you want to validate what I’ve said all along? Where were you when these illiterate assholes were giving me grief 24/7, misquoting my comments, and telling me that I knew nothing about the sport. I’m firmly on THIS Ryan Johansen bandwagon, but I reserve the right to come up with a new nickname to replace the one I gave him in November, “Butter.” — Today I prefer to call him the “Anti Rick Nash” because he’s brought his post-season game to a new unworldly level, and it’s miles above his regular-season game, whereas Nash seems to go in an opposite direction when the post season rolls around.

I have a theory. In baseball, you play 162 games divided almost entirely into 3 and 4 game stints in a particular stadium, home or away. In hockey you play half the amount of games but aside from a rare back-to-back/home-and-home scenario, you play a different team every night you’re in action. The playoffs come along and you have a “Best-of-seven” that pits you against the same opponent, with only the occasional venue switch. What Johansen did was lock into Toews and make his life miserable. Each night of the regular season, Johansen flipped a coin as to whether he’d show up, or not show up. Sixty-one points in the regular season. An 82 game regular season. Johansen was a participant in all 82 games, but was held off the scoresheet in 43 of those games. While this doesn’t mean Johansen was “bad” in all of those games, the team’s record in those games was 14 wins and 29 losses (In games he recorded at least a point, 27 wins, 12 losses.) Ryan Johansen has bought in, he’s all in, and he’s executing the game plan to the max. Coach Laviolette has noticed, the broadcasters have noticed, the writers have noticed, and I’ve noticed. I’ll still hate having given up Seth Jones for a long, long time, but I LOVE this incarnation of Ryan Johansen for the time being. I hope he has 12 more wins left in him, because you throw in my already unwavering belief in guys named Arvidsson, Forsberg, Fiala, Sissons, Watson, Aberg, Fisher, Ellis, Josi, Subban, Rinne, with some immediate in the moment lust for Matt Irwin (move over Stu Grimson, this guy does more in 11 minutes than most third pairing defensemen) and Harry Zolnierczyk (every team needs a guy who can do nothing more than show his gratitude for the privilege to play in the NHL with the kind of spirit that leaves it all on the ice for however long he’s out there on a game-by-game basis) and you have a team that looks unbeatable at the best time of the year to look unbeatable.

Could it all come to a crashing end in St. Louis? or Edmonton? or Anaheim? or Washington? or Pittsburgh? … sure, but there were very few who gave Nashville even the slimmest of chances against Chicago… but then Ryan Johansen decided he had to prove he was tougher than butter… and he has!

Onto Game 4 in Nashville

It’s highly doubtful anyone could document their belief that the Nashville Predators would be looking to sweep the Chicago Black Hawks at Bridgestone Arena tonight. In most circles, if there were to be a 3-0 edge in games to this point, it would be Kane, Toews and Co. holding all the cards as the inconsistent, erratic Predators sought to stave off elimination. But, the shoe is on the other foot, and the Preds, who seemed to shoot themselves in the foot at multiple turns over the course of the season, find themselves just a scant few hours from having a few days off before beginning round two of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. St. Louis, who have a 3 games to 1 lead over the Minnesota Wild, are the team most likely next in line, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the series may end up going the distance, as Minnesota has underachieved in the first three games, and the Blues have overachieved, and it’s time for the pendulum to swing to the North.

If the Preds can close this thing out tonight, they may get as much as a week to ponder their next challenge. That would be good news for Craig Smith, and Colin Wilson, but it would be a little tougher on a guy like Pekka Rinne, who has thrived on the post-season to this point, and is clearly the team’s Most Valuable Player after three contests.

Time to heap some praise: from A (Aberg) to Z (Zolnierczyk) the team has been playing its’ best hockey of 2017. Having been critical of star players (Ryan Johansen) and marginal ones (Matt Irwin) over the course of the regular season, it needs to be documented that everyone seems to be firing on all cylinders and I couldn’t be more positive about the team as a whole if I tried. Johansen has been very good on both sides of the redline, and despite being one of only two forwards (the other was Jarnkrok) who did not register a shot-on-goal in game Three, has created enough of a presence as to neutralize Jonathan Toews and give Chicago fits both offensively and defensively. On the blueline, Irwin has been a third pairing revelation, making every decision he makes look like the right one, and correctly gauging when to back up and when to pinch in. I saw enough of Matt Irwin’s play as a San Jose Shark, to know the guy was an AHL depth guy at best, and while Stu Grimson, Darren McFarland, and company have been praising this guy all season long, he’s saved his best for the post season and has been one tenacious MF when on the ice with his partner Yannick Weber.

Other notes include the “coming out party” for Kevin Fiala, who is showing exceptional hand/eye coordination, scoring perhaps the most important goal for the Preds this season. Patience, magic, and skill are the watchwords for the entire Nashville team, and Fiala is the embodiment of that sentiment. Hopefully he has turned the Laviolette corner and will not find himself back in the chateau bow-wow moving forward. We also have to see how creative Poile can get with Vegas Knights GM George McPhee, as any one of Jarnkrok, Neal, Sissons, Watson or Fiala all look like they’d be huge additions to the soon-to-be formed expansion franchise. Aberg and Zolnierczyk… the Admirals Club… both are laying it all on the line every shift, and both have produced prodigious results. Harry got a HUGE goal in game two, and Pontus has been tenaciously dogging Black Hawk forwards with every second he’s on the ice.

Almost 5pm. Time to hop in my car and head over the bridge to the stone… Here’s to a clean game, a clean sweep and a chance to see our Nashville Predators make a little history. And, in other games, I’d sure love to see the Rangers grab a 3-2 series lead over the Canadiens. I’d be thrilled if Columbus could live to see one more day against the Penguins, and the upstart Oilers do to the Sharks what the Sharks did to them in Game Four. Hockey be with you, my friends.

Will the Nashville Predators surprise the Chicago Blackhawks?

I suppose the short answer to my title question is, “No,” the Chicago Blackhawks will be prepared and ready for a skilled Nashville team to come into the United Center and play a game strong enough to grab two points on any given night.

Then, the converse question, “Will the Chicago Blackhawks surprise the Nashville Predators?” The answer to that, for me, leans towards “Quite possibly.” You see, this “Magic 8-Ball” approach to prognostication of the NHL playoffs is downright ridiculous. The parity of the league is such that on any given night, any team can win against any other. However, once 82 games are played and playoff rankings have been applied, pundits seem obliged to decide who’s REALLY in, and who’s on their way out. Nashville holds no chance against a mighty Chicago hockey team that goes for its fourth Stanley Cup in just eight years. Daunting challenge for an eighth seed team that could not muster much momentum heading into the post-season, although Chicago themselves lost their final four regular season games.

I can’t pick a winner. I’m a Preds season ticket holder. I have seen the ups, I have felt the downs, and I know that based on the season series between these two clubs, it’s a no-brainer for Chicago. But, I also know the Predators are a tricky team to judge. If this were a seven game series against any of the NON-playoff teams, I might go with one of them. After all, we saw Winnipeg and the New York Islanders give this team fits in the final week, with Connor Hellebuyck and Jaroslav Halak each looking like the second coming of Georges Vezina over the course of their contests vs. Nashville.

To beat Chicago:
1. Determine which team is going to battle. There are a number of players who may or may not be getting the nod in the opening game. It may seem unimportant, but the fourth line could be any number of six guys, and it needs to be nailed down. But, let’s start with the first line. With Forsberg and Arvidsson flanking Johansen over the final couple of months of the season, we saw the two wingers score some of the more determined goals of the season, and for all his soft defensive foibles, Johansen made some tremendous passes to spring these guys into action. However, there was a game when James Neal replaced Arvidsson, and with Arvy on line two, Craig Smith had a revelation in his game. Balancing out the attack and having Arvidsson play with Jarnkrok doesn’t bother me in the least. Of course Forsberg and Johansen, when neutralized, are liable to give the puck away far too much. Their defensive game must be sharper. What to do with Captain Mike Fisher, who is sorely needed in the lineup, but where? Assuming your four centers are Johansen, Fisher, Jarnkrok and Sissons, you are saying that veteran Vern Fiddler is either hurt, or just not good enough to crack this lineup, and I’m FINE with that. Fiddler played 20 games after his acquisition, and chipped in a single goal and no assists. While he did play with grit and won some faceoffs, having either Fisher OR Sissons in that role is a major upgrade. Fans joke about “regular season Colin Wilson,” and “playoff Colin Wilson.” There appears to be a difference. At least, based on the past two post-season efforts by Nashville, Wilson’s game appeared to elevate over his October through March play. This season saw Wilson record his career high in assists in a single season (23) and his goal production doubled from 6 to 12, though far off the 20 goal pace he provided in 2014-15. The enigmatic Smith is often lumped into the same category as Wilson, as each receive 4M paychecks to underachieve for large portions of the season. On a four year point decline (52-44-37-29), Smith saw his goal production dip to 12 this season after three consecutive 20+ campaigns. However, his play over the final few weeks of the season was strong and there’s no reason to think he would be excluded from the Game 1 lineup vs. Chicago. Kevin Fiala is a player who has proved to be a highly skilled forward that has shuttled in and out of Coach Laviolette’s doghouse, without suffering any real public humiliation. With Fiala, it’s been a numbers game, and of course with GM David Poile’s tinkering, adding depth guys like Fiddler and P.A. Parenteau around the deadline, Fiala sat further and further on the edge of the bubble. He was one of a handful of players who over the course of the season found themselves in the press box a game after actually scoring a goal. With Fiala, youth is on his side and he will be a part of the organization (hopefully) for the foreseeable future, but will he crack the opening lineup against the Hawks? I hope so. Parenteau, on the other hand, has been limited to just eight games in a Nashville sweater, and honestly, he’s been far more invisible than good or bad. A skilled scoring forward with liability issues in the defensive zone, it’s hard to say that beyond his NHL experience he brings more to the table than Fiala, who appears far more creative and therefore “higher risk/higher reward.” Will Lavy eschew veteran presence for youthful exuberance? Fact is, for Chicago, the youth thing is totally working and it would suck to watch Parenteau plod through a game with Fiala in a suit eating finger food in the visiting team suite, while Ryan Hartman (21 years old, 19 goals) and Nick Schmalz (20 years old, 28 points) supply depth scoring for Chicago. Throw a cantankerous Austin Watson, a veteran enforcer Cody McLeod, a career minor leaguer Harry Zolnierczyk, and the Milwaukee call-up, Pontus Aberg in the mix, and you have sixteen forwards fighting for twelve jobs.

Forsberg – Johansen – Neal

Smith – Jarnkrok – Arvidsson

Fiala – Fisher – Wilson

Watson – Sissons – ?

McLeod – Fiddler – Zolnierczyk – Parenteau – Aberg

On defense, the picture is slightly less murky:

Ellis – Josi

Subban – Ekholm

Irwin – ?

Bitetto – Hunt – Weber

I suppose if Weber is healthy, he steps in with Irwin, and Bitetto and Hunt are the guys on the outside looking in. But, if Weber is still hurt, do you go with grit and toughness (Bitetto) or the more mobile puckhandler (Hunt)?

Of course, in goal, we will be treated to Pekka Rinne, with maybe a side of the firepower of Pekka Rinne. While, Juuse Saros coninues to gather steam as the heir apparent to the crease in a couple of years, impatient fans appear ready to anoint him the starter immediately. Fortunately, Nashville’s brain trust know they have to place their faith in Rinne with an eye towards the future down the road apiece.

2. Create traffic in front of Crawford. Feet don’t fail me now. The Predators have been a terrible passing team this season. Unfortunately, this is a “stat” that goes un-kept throughout the league, but on any given night we have been forced to watch this team shoot themselves in the foot with ill-conceived breakout passes, poor zone attempts on the power play, and an inability to get the puck to a shooter in position to put the puck on net. Compound this by the number of times a puck handler has gone into the offensive zone all alone with no support rushing towards the net to gather up a potential rebound off an initial shot. Deposed Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter may not have been able to lead his troops into post-season battle this year, but he operated of over three quarters of the season without his all-World goaltender, Jonathan Quick. He did, however, team that lead the NHL in possession for the fourth consecutive season. If only a portion of that could rub off on Nashville, they would become a lethal, dominating team in this league. Giving the puck carrier an option (or TWO) when making decisions would go a long way towards furthering this team’s offensive capabilities. We’ve seen it dozens of times this season, and in seasons passed, where the opposition puts two or three men in the vicinity of the Preds crease as the shooter is about to unleash an attempt on goal.  With bodies the size of Johansen’s, we should see an increase in possession time, as well as second and third efforts on net, creating more scoring. Tiring to watch a lone Predators puck carrier cruising into the opposition’s zone as his four skating teammates are peeling off for a line change, and the ensuing players are willing to stand back at the blue line while waiting for the inevitible change in possession.

3. Special teams need to be far more special. Because you can’t expect a team with Keith, Seabrook, Kane, Hossa and Toews to just lay down against their potentially seriously weaker opponents in this area. While both the power play and the penalty kill have had moments of superiority this season, those moments have been inconsistently few and far between. In fact, when all was said and done, the Predators could muster no better than 15th and 16th on the PK and PP respectively. “Hard Outs” on the penalty kill are necessary at the most critical of junctures. Too many times saw Predators indecision resulting in the opposition keeping a puck in the zone at the blue line, when a more forceful pass or clearing attempt would have spelled relief for the unit on the ice trying to kill the penalty. As for the power play, can we see a concerted effort to enter the offensive zone with some speed and a plan to not put three guys behind the net and two up at the points? Or, that nifty trick of a box and a guy in the middle of the opposition’s PK box, with the objective to try to break into the defense’s “inner sanctum” and get the puck to a guy who has four men surrounding him? Seriously, I’ve been at wit’s end trying to figure out who believes these systems work? They don’t work on any other team.  In fact, they are rarely tried on other teams because they just make no sense. Don’t even get me started on the three defensemen, two forwards setup the team tried earlier last week on a couple of failed five on three possessions. Smarter decisions, quicker decisions, and movement of the feet are keys to making the special teams work against a very smart, well-disciplined Chicago team.

 

Starting Thursday we have a potentially epic seven-game-series against the chief rivals of all things Nashville hockey. Blackhawks will be on their game and ready to show Predators and their fans what the make up of this year’s Blackhawks team is about. It’s up to the Preds to crash the party, steal some thunder, and position themselves right where most fans thought they’d be at this time in the season: On the way to a destiny meeting with the Stanley Cup.

Preds begin playoffs with dreaded lower body injury. Soldier on.

While most injuries are veiled in disguise, and rarely disclosed, it would be tough not to acknowledge the team’s injury heading into the playoffs. You see, the Nashville Predators continually shot themselves in the collective foot over the course of the 2016-17 season, with the latest bullet fired with less than a minute to go in a game vs. Winnipeg that closed out the regular season.