What’s It Gonna Be, Preds? Trick or Treat?

As I make this long overdue re-entry into the Preds blog world, I guess I owe you guys a bit of an explanation as to where I’ve been for the past four weeks.

Allow me to just say that there’s been a lot of upheaval in my personal life recently and there were things that required my immediate and sustained attention. In the end, something had to go, and I decided my social media efforts were the most expedient candidates to temporarily pare out of my daily routine.

Therefore this space has gone dark for the entire month as of October. Great; just as the NHL season is set to get started, my new hockey-exclusive blogging effort hits the skids. I sure didn’t plan it that way, but life stepped in and had asserted its will; I simply had to direct my energies elsewhere.

I’m not going to elaborate on the particulars here, but if you’re interested, I will be discussing my latest personal doings on my main blog (which has also been silent since the first week of October) in the coming days.

Things are nowhere near ‘back to normal,’ but I am finally in a place where I have a better idea of where they are going. As scary as my life has been of late, I figured Halloween was as good a time as any to resurface in the blogosphere.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about something really frightening: The Nashville Predators play to begin the 2009-10 season.

Team Jekyll/Hyde
We knew going into this season that the Preds would be hard-pressed to score goals. What we didn’t know was that seemingly half the team would be on the injured reserve list less than two weeks into the season. We also didn’t know how the off-season loss of role-players like Greg Zannon and Scotty Nichol would play in the apparent change of team chemistry that quite clearly appears to have altered this current group’s resolve. Apparently the Predators have forgotten the formula for winning hockey games in the manner they have in the past, and must also must be committed to for the foreseeable future .

I’m not usually one to pile on with others in criticizing the Nashville Predators and head coach Barry Trotz, but I’m afraid I have to remove the kid gloves in grading this team for its performance in the 2009-10 season’s first three-plus weeks.

There is no appreciable difference in the talent level from this season’s team and that of the 2008-09 squad. In fact, given the maturation factor alone of such rising stars as defensemen Shea Weber & Ryan Suter, forwards Patrick Hornqvist & Cal O’Reily, and goalie Pekka Renne, the Preds should have picked up right where they left off last season, as one of the NHL Central Division’s more competitive teams.

To their credit, they appeared initially to be treading that path after the season’s first two games: wins on the road at Dallas, and at home versus everyone’s surprise favorite this year, the Colorado Avalanche. However the untimely concussion injury in the season opener to top line left wing J.P. Dumont, was the no way to start the season, despite the subsequent victory against the Stars.

The team’s fortunes quickly shifted following its first two quick strides. Those well-efforted victories, in which they may or may not have been the fortunate benefactors of less-than-inspired play by their opponents, were followed by a truly inexplicable power/effort outage, in which Nashville scored only six goals and gave up twenty-two, in their next six games — two of which were shutouts and all of which were losses, with the real only bright spot being an overtime/shootout loss to one of the NHL’s elite teams, the Washington Capitals, a game in which the Preds nearly pulled the upset.

That stretch hit the team hard. The icing on the cake came October 20th, when it was announced that team captain and first-line center Jason Arnott would be sidelined up to two weeks with an arm injury sustained during the loss at Washington.

Given the records of the teams who have beaten the Predators, three of whom are currently in first-place (and responsible for four of Nashville’s seven overall losses), I realize it may be a little harsh to indict the team of underachieving. However given the difference in ice-effort I’ve personally witnessed — particularly, the home losses to Buffalo and Edmonton, compared to last Thursday’s inspiring shutout victory over the powerful Chicago Blackhawks, one thing is clear: the Preds will go as far as their determination will carry them this season; period.

The schedule-maker appears to be the Preds’ boogie-man at this point, with seven out of their first thirteen games on the road, and yet another four out of the next five on foreign ice yet to come before the team enjoys the benefit of home cookin’ for any extended length of time. However if they can be diligent, that road pain may well be turned into gain in March, following the Winter Olympics break and during the final push for the playoffs when the Preds play 12 of their final 21 games at Sommet Center.

But that potential late-season advantage may be a moot point if the team doesn’t begin to carry one simple fact deep within their collective bosom: effort wins hockey games — not talent, necessarily.

The difference in that quotient the Predators have displayed thus far this season has never been so clear as in the disparity between their two home contests versus the division-leading Chicago Blackhawks.

The first home meeting on Thursday October 15th resulted in a 3-1 loss that was less a lackluster offensive effort than it was a breakdown of defensive will, in my opinion. The Hawks came in flying high on a three-game win streak and crashed the Predators net with impunity, and were rarely challenged. Dustin Byfuglien’s first period uncontested putback of an uncorralled Pekka Rinne rebound within mere seconds of the beginning of Chicago’s first power play was a thing of beauty — if you’re a Hawk’s fan.

It was Halloween-come-early for the home crowd.

Such defensive breakdowns have been astonishingly common in the Preds’ losses so far this season. Yet I have yet to see them lose a game in which they’ve genuinely outworked their opponent, to wit: their next home meeting with Chicago, two weeks later: a 2-0 shutout last Thursday at the Sommet Center.

The Hawks are clearly a more offensively talented team than the Preds, yet on this night their hosts would rudely interrupt their assumed dominance. This time Nashville didn’t allow Chicago uncontested residence in front of Pekka Rinne, and when there was traffic there, did a stellar job of lifting sticks, clogging the passing lanes, and calmly frustrating their scoring efforts.

Now THAT’S Predators hockey.

The bottom line is, until Colin Wilson matures into the ultimate NHL stud we all believe he will be, or Mike Santorelli is finally able to make the cognitive jump from being a dominant offensive forward in the AHL and carries that same ability to the next level of play with the big boys — or yet perhaps even still, when Alex Radulov decides to come back to the Predators from his self-imposed Russian exile — Nashville just isn’t gonna be bowling over their opponents with 5-6 goals per night. Barry Trotz’ longstanding mantra of scoring ‘dirty goals,’ playing a tough forecheck; winning battles in the hard places, in the corners and in the front of the net; that’s how this team will succeed.

The question is not, “can they do it,” but rather, “are they willing?” The Predators have shown the ability to play the game the way they must play over their past two victories, on the road at Minnesota, and at home against Chicago. Tonight’s contest against Dallas will be yet another test of wills, but one that the Preds should be disappointed in themselves if they don’t give their best effort of the season.

Winning is contagious, but so is losing. Thursday night’s game was as inspiring an effort as we’ve seen this season. You could almost see the lightbulb go on as they battled Chicago on each and every possession in the Nashville defensive zone. Predators’ fans can only hope this was the start of something good.

Other encouraging news is that the injury bug, which has bitten the Preds early and often, is beginning to lose a bit of its sting. The return to the ice of captain Jason Arnott, and perhaps the Preds’ most noticeable personnel handicap thus far — the absence  of energy man/disruptor, Jordin Tootoo is imminent — likely sometime next week while the Preds are on their first West Coast road swing of the season.

Hopefully that and the team’s rediscovery of its identity/work ethic will finally return the Predators to a consistent path toward its ultimate destination: the playoffs. Tonight’s meeting with the Stars at the Sommet Center will be as telling as it is appropriate — as a metaphor for the holiday on which it’s being played: Halloween.

Which identity will the team display in the latest chapter of this Jeckyll & Hyde season?

So, what’s it gonna be, Nashville — ‘Trick or Treat?’

Predators fans would definitely prefer the latter…but then again, a ‘(hat) trick’ might not be so bad either…

finis

3 Responses to “What’s It Gonna Be, Preds? Trick or Treat?”

  1. Jen B. October 31, 2009 at 9:58 pm #

    Excellent post AJ. We’ll be with you in 329 tonight sans costume but with jerseys on in row F cheering our boys on to what we hope is another treat like Thursday.
    Happy Halloween!

  2. ajinnashville November 1, 2009 at 4:26 am #

    Thanks, Jen! And what a treat it was, huh? Next game, stop by and say hello! We’re Row B, towards the middle!

  3. Hockey Hillbilly November 2, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    Glad you’re back, and hope the break in the Predators’ game mirrors an upturn in your own fortunes.

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