That’s Just The way It Is
There are no fingers to point; no deadbeats to blame, no superior coaching philosophies to extoll. Two teams played near-perfect hockey for 65 minutes; neither budged, yet someone had to lose.
Fate chose the Nashville Predators.
I don’t believe that even the most ardent, obnoxious Red Wings fan could say with any conviction that their team was superior in a game that simply broke down to a mathematical equation that had to be fulfilled; someone had to lose. Detroit didn’t beat Nashville, they merely outlasted them in the 1-0, eleven-round shootout marathon Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena.
There’s really no analyzing this battle of the ages between two defenses and two goaltenders who each refused to give an inch. Both teams had no more than a handful of true scoring chances, and both goalies stood firm. It was as evenly-matched a game as you’re likely to see, pitting two equally-determined teams trying desperately to establish position as the Stanley Cup Playoffs hover in the distance, just two and-a-half weeks from now, with neither team having had their ticket punched just yet.
When the smoke cleared, however, it was Niklas Kronwall, in the eleventh shootout round, forcing Predators netminder Pekka Rinne back on his heels with a surprisingly hard approach to the net, who was able to slide the 5-hole winner home for the visitors.
So while the outcome stung for the majority of a sellout crowd admittedly more heavily peppered with red hockey jerseys than the previous two meetings with Detroit here this season, the game’s impact on the standings wasn’t truly devastating for the Preds.
They remain in fifth place in the Western Conference, maintaining their lead by a point over Detroit, who now moves up to sixth, with a final meeting between the two still in the offing next Saturday night in the Motor City. That’s a game that could be extremely important for Nashville, but more from a confidence standpoint than one to determine their playoff disposition.
Despite the injury problems the Red Wings have had this season it’s been business as usual against the Predators. The teams have had some epic battles over the years, but coming into the 2009-2010 campaign, Nashville has fashioned only one winning regular season versus Detroit; that being the improbable circumstance of last season when the Predators played every game with the Wings like it was the playoffs – and for all intents and purposes, for them it, was. Nashville missed the league’s after-party for the first time in five tries but took the season series from Detroit 3-2-1.
While they won’t repeat that head-to-head performance this season, they may well accomplish another first that’s just as important to them. A victory in the final meeting of the regular season next Saturday could possibly assure their finishing ahead of Detroit in the standings for the first time in team history, and could go a long way toward bolstering their mindset going into the postseason. And while I believe the Preds’ head space is more important than their playoff position, staying out of the seventh and eighth spots and avoiding a first-round meeting with either San Jose or Chicago is important as well.
The Predators have never finished ahead of Detroit in the standings; their closest finish was the 2006-07 season when they tied with Anaheim for second in the conference with a team-record 110 points while Detroit took the top spot with 113. It would no doubt be a feather in the Predators’ cap to finish ahead of their Motor City Rivals this time around, and remove much of the sting of having a losing record to them in the regular season.
Skating In the Here and Now
But what happens a week from now is immaterial. The here and now is what’s important, and awaiting the Predators beginning tomorrow in a rematch with the Florida Panthers – this time more than likely going up against an old friend and former Preds fan favorite, goalie Tomas Vokoun.
When the Preds and Panthers meet Monday night in Sunrise, Florida, the home team will be loose and eager to play spoiler to a Western Conference opponent, as well as avenge a somewhat embarrassing loss here in Nashville back on November 28th, as the Preds tallied three times in the third period to win going away, 4-1.
Vokoun was not in goal that game, however, having played the front end of back-to-back contests the night before. This time the Panthers will have a day off prior to the game, so barring anything unforeseen Vokoun will be in net to meet his old mates.
Following their final east coast trip for the regular season, the Preds then return home the following evening for a pivotal final meeting with the L.A. Kings, who have been in a bit of a freefall lately, having lost their last three, dropping to the seventh spot in the west, two points behind Nashville. With L.A.’s tough remaining schedule of six games in eleven days after that, a victory or at least a point in that game makes things very tough for the Kings to get past both the Preds and Red Wings in the standings.
Beyond that, it’s meaningless to speculate. Talk to me again in a week. That’s how tight things are right now in the West.
Head Space and Speculation
I guess I felt a little obligated to wax somewhat philosophical about the outcome of Saturday night’s game, but my true inspiration for this post was the physical disposition of the Predators’ Captain, Jason Arnott, and what his absence means to the team now – and more importantly – later.
Arnott has missed the last three games with what now can only be assumed to be a mild, but full-blown concussion, athough it has not officially been disclosed as such. He suffered a glancing blow to the forehead while being checked into the boards in last Saturday’s victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets. It hasn’t been ‘called’ a concussion, but all the signs are all there: Arnott holding himself out as a precautionary measure, stating that he felt, “good” just not enough to play. Then when it was assumed, based on that initial self-diagnosis that he would be back on the ice last Thursday against Phoenix, but wasn’t, we started to wonder.
Regression is a rather glaring indication of the concussion scenario, as the victim goes from bad to worse. In Arnott’s case, it’s something with which he’s become painfully familiar.
This makes three concussions in three years – all coming at horrendously bad times for Nashville.
2007-08: In perhaps Arnott’s most famous concussion circumstance, the 2007-08 Round One Playoff series against Detroit, ExPredtriate, Alexander Radulov’s senseless victory tackle of Arnott, following the Captain’s game number four-winning goal, forced the Predators’ co-leading scorer to miss the rest of the playoffs. With the series tied at two, The Red Wings regrouped, won the next two games, and advanced to eventually claim the Stanley Cup.
2008-09: Arnott suffered another concussion versus the Washington Capitals on March 10th – a game the Preds would eventually lose in the shootout – and missed the next eleven games in the heat of the Predators’ scramble for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.Although the Preds had a deceivingly-positive 5-3-3 record in Arnott’s absence, they suffered three consecutive overtime losses in the midst of that stretch. Those three points that were left on the table would prove important. We’ll never know if the outcome of those three games could have been different should the Preds have had their Captain and leading goal scorer available.
Upon his return on April 4th, Arnott picked right up where he left off, producing an incredible six goals and two assists in the season’s final four games. However the Preds could only manage a split of those final four regular season contests, finishing three points out of the playoffs – the same number of points they gave away in the overtime losses during Arnott’s eleven-game absence.
2009-10: So what will become of Arnott’s absence this time? The Predators are 1-1-1 in the three games he’s missed so far, and there is no definitive date set for when he’ll be back. Certainly the team’s situation is more forgiving than that of last season. It would take a monumental collapse by Nashville not to make it into the final eight. However the Preds have more than making it to the dance on their minds; they want to hang around and do some boogying while they’re there; to finally eject the monkey of never winning a playoff series that has ridden their backs for so many years.
The team is in position to finish as high as fifth, which would place them on a collision course with the Phoenix Coyotes, a team despite the Preds’ trouble with them this season, is a far better matchup than that of the next seed down, sixth, which would have the Nashville traveling to a much less certain fate with the Vancouver Canucks; a team they truly don’t want to see in the first round.
Seventh could bring either San Jose or Chicago, but my money is on the Sharks to take the top prize in the West, as following their recent five-game losing skein, they seem to be firing on all cylinders once again, thereby indicating that Nashville would instead meet the Hawks; another team they really don’t wanna see this early either.
That leaves the eighth and final spot, should things go so terribly awry for the Preds and so well for the Kings and the Colorado Avalanche. It’s not likely to happen given the comparative schedules of the three teams, but I’ve learned what happens when I ASSume.Bottom line: past playoff history as well as recent regulation-game nightmares in the Shark Tank would indicate that the last and final place the Predators want to begin the post season is San Josie.
Is it fair to place all the pressure of the Predators’ playoff placement on the shoulders on Jason Arnott? Absolutely not; but things are what they are, and Predators are a much different team; a less potent team, offensively – particularly on the power play – when Arnott is missing.
The Beginning Of the End?
I realize I am now beginning to delve into murky waters, touching upon speculative subjects I neither have first-hand knowledge of, nor really any right to pose an opinion on. However I consider myself a pretty good judge of human nature, and feel I’m a fairly decent observer as well.
And everything I’m feeling and seeing with regard to Jason Arnott is telling me that this season is of even greater importance to him than it is to his team.
It could be his last.
Arnott’s contract is up at the end of the 2010-11 season, and while it’s generally assumed that both he and the Predators would be interested in him re-signing, one thing remains that is a blatant as the nose on Alex Ovetchkin’s face.
Arnott is a family man first, a hockey player, second. That’s the reason he’s here in Nashville. That’s what attracted him to sign here when he could have gone elsewhere for a lot more money.
He wanted a challenge, and having the opportunity to be a big fish in the relatively little pond of a non-traditional-hockey-market that yet was Music City in 2006, combined with a great environment to raise and grow his family is what brought him here, and may well keep him here after his playing days are over.
Could it also be a reason for him choosing retirement over playing hockey after this season?
It was reported in no uncertain terms last season that Arnott’s wife, Dina, did not want her husband to return to the ice when he did following his concussion in March of 2009. The science is becoming increasingly clear that concussions are no laughing matter, and that the evidence of regression symptoms indicate the difficulty in diagnosing their severity.
How long a recovery period is long enough?
Fortunately for Arnott and his family, apparently the recovery time following last season’s incident was sufficient; but what about now? What about the often progressive susceptibility of further brain trauma to concussion victims, making the second one more damaging than the first? What about the very real possibility that the next one might bring with it permanent brain function loss?
What is it worth to Arnott to find out?
Had this merely been a bump on the head; had Jason Arnott played against Dallas and Detroit, even if the Preds had still lost those two games, everything about this scenario would be different. But once the first domino of Arnott missing the Dallas game fell, and then the second, and now a third, all the implications have begun following suit; leaving us with a very harsh possible reality; one that I’m sure no one in the Predators front office is even allowing themselves to think about.
But I’ll betcha dimes-to-donuts that Jason Arnott is thinking about it.
I’ll double betcha that Dina Arnott is thinking about it.
And I’ll make the prediction right here that if the Predators make it past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season, Jason will retire a Predator at the end of his contract. I Double-Dang guarantee it’ll happen in the unlikely event that the Preds make it to the Cup Final – win or lose.
But that’s a big, huge, hairy, ‘IF.’
The Preds have to get to the playoffs first. The irony is, they will much more than likely need Jason Arnott to do that and to advance – if and when that happens.
It’s a real chicken-or-egg circumstance: the Preds need Jason Arnott to play in order for them to be assured a playoff position that provides a decent chance to succeed. Arnott needs to wait until his head says he’s ready in order to avoid coming back too soon and risking more serious brain injury.
And if he does not return, either this season or next, I for one won’t blame him. He’s been a great Captain, and a great producer for the Predators. At 35 years of age and eighteen NHL seasons, the only things he has yet to prove is in the minds of his detractors.
But I do hope, as do all Preds fans with me, that his story has a happy ending.
Get well soon, Jason…but be well, always.
* * * * *