The Empire Strikes Back (Again)
While your friend and mine, Dirk Hoag, a.k.a. The Forechecker, may not be quite ready to commit to the same level of optimism as his bombastic neighbor down the street, said crazy neighbor will proclaim it once again:
The Nashville Predators are who we thought they were, and they are back!
It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the NHL literati takes the fingers out of their collective ears and stop shouting ‘LAH- LAH- LAH- LAH- LAH’ long enough to notice. But even if they don’t, no worries; they’ll be the ones who look silly come playoff time.
I’m convinced the only thing that will keep this team out of the post season is injury. The depth of Nashville’s forward unit is paper-thin, as we’ve already seen from the nosedive the team experienced at the beginning of the season. The threat of debilitating injuries to even a few key players is a definitely a concern. But then again, the same could be said for most NHL clubs. The Preds, however, do seem to be a bit more fragile at this point.
Nevertheless, when this team is healthy it appears to have no trouble hitting on all cylinders, as witnessed by its current skein of nine-out-of-eleven and five wins in a row.
And speaking of streaks, Saturday night’s 4-3 shootout victory was Nashville’s 12th straight over hated Central Division rival, the Columbus Bluejackets here on the Preds’ home ice — although it was not perfect.
I’m certain the Bluejackets had this one circled on their calendar just on general principles, and particularly given the two embarrassing thumpings the Preds handed them in the preseason. These guys HATE OUR GUTS — and they darned-well should.
That the Jackets came in and played a mostly smart and spirited game was no surprise. Columbus Head Coach Ken Hitchcock’s team has picked up right where it left off the regular season last year and has given no indication that their first playoff appearance in team history was a fluke.
However I don’t think it’s being greedy to say that the Predators shouldn’t have given Columbus a point Saturday night. I agree with Head Coach Barry Trotz’s post game comment that forward Wade Belak’s penalty on Jared Boll in the second period was needless (not to mention totally senseless) after David Legwand’s inspiring short-handed goal and Martin Erat’s power play marker exactly two minutes later had put the Preds up 3-2.
The Preds had stormed back from early 1-0 and 2-1 deficits, and clearly had the momentum going their way. Then Belak’s blunder in the waning moments of the 2nd Period sent ‘Mo’ back in the other direction.
Where the Sun Don’t Shine
Bluejackets resident tough, Jared Boll, has a long history of laying heavy hits on Predators players, so Trotz’s game plan was that whenever Boll was on the ice, he’d have Belak on hand to counter.
Nashville acquired Belak last season from the Florida Panthers to add some toughness and protection up front (and to be someone other than Jordin Tootoo who was willing to drop the gloves without getting clocked). Like most NHL enforcers, Belak likes to send a ‘message’ when he’s on the ice. Unfortunately for the Preds, the message he decided to send near the end of the 2nd period was loud enough for Boll’s future unborn children to hear.
After receiving a check from Boll he didn’t like, Belak ‘hooked’ his Columbus counterpart from behind — hard — between the legs.
As the guy in that recent Tennessee Lottery commercial says, “Oooooh…right in the babaloochies!”
Boll went down like lava from a volcano. It was as dirty a penalty as I’ve ever seen a Nashville player take, and it cost the Predators a point, as on the ensuing power play the Jackets’ Anton Stralman deposited a wrister past Pekka Rinne to tie the game at three.
After neither team scored in period three and overtime, Nashville would ultimately prevail in the shootout, on a lamp-lighter by Mike Santorelli, followed by David Legwand’s game-winner. However it shouldn’t have even come to that, as acknowledged by Trotz in his post-game comments.
That’s certainly not to take anything away from Columbus’s performance; they seized the opportunity they were given like any good team is wont to do, but the fact of the matter is that without the power play Belak’s penalty gave them, they don’t get that third point in this second of the Nashville’s two consecutive three-point games.
And speaking of ‘getting the point,’ following the penalty, Belak didn’t return to the ice in the third period. I guess Trotz had a point to make as well.
The Supreme Test
The Detroit Red Wings come to town Monday night, in a 6:00pm start-time, nationally televised game on the Versus Network. The Predators will face perhaps their greatest test to date. They’ll also have the ability to make their greatest statement in this week of ‘statement games.’
Almost every team has its own ‘Evil Empire.’ A few years ago Ken Hitchcock dubbed Nashville as his team’s nemesis with which to deal. Despite their improved play in the past year, the Jackets have yet to find an answer to Nashville’s dominance; they’ll continue to work on that this season, but round one once again goes to the bad boys in blue and gold.
For Nashville, we can spit and cuss all we want about San Jose, but our Evil Emps are and always have been the Detroit Red Wings. The Preds will have their first shot at seeing if the current wave of resolve on which the team is riding can overcome history, not only to the end that can they vanquish the ’Wings in the season series as they did even last year, but finally, in the standings as well.
A win over the Red Wings would perhaps be the final affirmative that the Nashville Predators have in fact returned from the dead.
Stay tuned, boys and girls. This stuff is really getting fun…