The ‘Belief’ is Back

The ‘home ice belief’ that Nashville Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz sees his team receiving has not only made him happier, it has Preds fans ecstatic. (Photo: © Reuters)


Hmmmm…

I think someone’s been fibbing to us, ladies and gentlemen. Someone down at 501 Broadway has not been telling the whole truth.

Oh sure, they say that the reason behind the policy of ending Bridgestone Arena beer sales at ten minutes before 9pm is that of public safety concern, and for sure, no one could argue against discouraging the over-indulgence of adult beverages when many of those potential over-imbibers would soon thereafter be behind the wheel of an automobile, driving home from the game.

Well, it sounds good, anyway, but I don’t buy it.

I think the real reason they cut things off at 8:50pm is that they don’t want anyone to be out of their seats in the waning moments of the third period, because that’s when the Nashville Predators seem to play their most exciting hockey.

To wit: although they currently sit far from the top of the NHL in goal differential, having scored only a single tally more (85) than they’ve allowed (84), the Preds have managed to stay in their familiar, lower-middle-of-the-pack position in the Western Conference playoff race for most of this season by virtue of when they’ve scored a lot of those goals.

Third Period Magic
Particularly of late, Nashville has become one of the league’s more entertaining teams to watch, having scored 37 times — just a hair under 43.5% of their entire goal total — in the third period of games this season. Seven of those markers have been game-winners (or have forced overtime), each coming with 7:39 or less remaining in regulation.

Nashville’s late-going heroics began early, in just the season’s second game; and the last time they’d faced their recent opponent from this past Saturday night, the St. Louis Blues. In that October 8, 2011 game at Scottrade Center, the Preds sustained a third period rally by the bluenotes to knot the score at 2-2, before light-scoring defenseman Kevin Klein lit up goaltender Jaroslav Halak for the game winner with just 6:46 remaining in regulation.

The trend continued throughout November, as half the team’s win total that challenging month came courtesy of third period magic, including an overtime win in San Jose (in which the Preds scored twice in the final stanza to tie, then won it in extra-time), along with a stirring home victory over the Washington Capitals, with Colin Wilson’s crowd-pleaser coming with just 24.3 ticks left on the game clock.

However, it has been the games here in the month of December that have proven truly special for Preds fans, particularly those over the past 11 days. Throughout the season’s first two months, Nashville’s penchant for third period success had been largely relegated to the road, but lately, the magic seems to finally have returned to Bridgestone Arena.

Through December 6, 2011, Nashville was a very UN-Pred-like 3-5-2 in the House That Phil Built; a place in which they have established one of the NHL’s best home records since the lost season of the 2004-05 lockout. After two months of stubbing their toes on home ice, however, one profound road warrior moment appears to have shaken this teams from its doldrums.

The Columbus Comeback
It’s way too early to say just yet, but don’t be surprised if one game this season is singled out as the moment that catapulted the Nashville Predators to ultimate success in 2011-12. The sequence of events seems to have both started and ended with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Historically, since their inception, the Jackets have been a painfully inept patsy at the hands of the Preds, but particularly so here in Music City. However, in their first visit this season, on November 19, 2011, the visitors finally broke through to steal a victory at Bridgestone Arena. The Jackets’4-3 overtime win was their first in Music City since April 3, 2003, a run of 17 consecutive games.

Despite the fact that they still earned a point in the standings that night, the loss to Columbus sent the Predators into a four-game tailspin, culminating in what Head Coach Barry Trotz would later call “our worst game of the year,” one week later, a 4-1 loss in Detroit to the Red Wings; a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score would indicate.

The following week was a mixed bag for the Nashville: a 2-1 third period comeback victory over the Edmonton Oilers on November 28th followed by a 1-0 shutout loss to Mikka Kiprusoff and the Calgary Flames the very next night.

On December 1st, an ugly, but thoroughly satisfying 6-5 comeback victory in Vancouver, again with a game-winning goal delivered by Mike Fisher deep into the third period, with just 1:44 remaining. That was followed up by a pair of uninspired home losses to Buffalo and Phoenix just a few days later.

Then came the rematch with the Blue Jackets in Columbus on December 8th. Emboldened by their earlier success in Nashville, the Jackets carried a 2-1 lead into the third period and made it a 3-1 game 1:24 later.  But something seemed to click; the Predators refused to fall.

First, at 18:24, forward Patric Hornqvist put home a rebound on a missed Shea Weber shot to trim the deficit to 3-2. Trotz then pulled goalie Pekka Rinne for the extra attacker during an ensuing Nashville power play with just 1:06 left in regulation.

Winning a faceoff and controlling the puck the rest of the way, Sergei Kostitsyn redirected a Marty Erat pass through the high slot past Columbus goalie Curtis Sanford, tying the game at 3-3 with just 12.1 seconds remaining in regulation. Wilson would complete the remarkable comeback 1:35 into overtime with the game-winning goal.

Despite the fact that this wasn’t their first come-from-behind victory on the road, the resounding resilience with which it was forged seemed to galvanize the Preds as never before this season. They returned home to Bridgestone Arena a different team, and continued playing like it.

All four of the subsequent homestand’s games were exciting, hard-fought victories, to the delight of four extremely satisfied crowds (three of the games were sellouts). In all four victories — over Anaheim, Calgary, Detroit, and St. Louis — the games were decided in the third period or in the shootout, as was the case on Saturday night versus the Blues.

In that game, despite being clearly outplayed for most of it by a hungry, young St. Louis team now under the tutelage of former Columbus bench boss, Ken Hitchcock, the Preds felt confident. It would’ve been understandable if St. Louis did not.

Hitch’s Blue Jackets teams were 0-for-Nashville during his four-year tenure in Columbus. However, after taking over last month in St. Louis, Hitchcock’s talented young team has been tearing up the Western Conference and came into Saturday’s game confidently riding a four-game winning streak of their own.

Nonetheless, the result was the same for the affable Captain Kangaroo lookalike, as Nashville prevailed in the shootout, 2-1.

The Hitch in His Get-Along
There aren’t many nicer guys in the NHL, but unfortunately for Hitchcock, Barry Trotz’s Evil Empire hasn’t gotten any friendlier since Ken’s days with the Jackets, when he jokingly applied the Vaderesque moniker to his longtime pal’s dominance over the Columbus franchise. Losing again with a much more talented team than any of his previous BJ squads, he really must be wondering what it’s going to take for him to get a win in Nashville.

As head coach of the Blues, Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers, and Dallas Stars over the years that the Predators have been in the league, in all but just the first few years of the franchise’s existence, Hitchcock-coached teams have enjoyed zero success in the building originally known as the Nashville Arena. In fact, you have to go all the way back to February 13, 2001, when Hitch’s Dallas squad defeated the Preds 1-0 for the last time that he’s won a game here. That’s a streak (16 games) that nearly matches Columbus’s recently broken 17-game skein of futility, which started before Hitch arrived and continued after he left. Hitchcock’s cumulative record in Music City, now in 22 games, is just is four wins, 17 losses, zero overtime losses and one tie.

Hitchcock & company will no doubt be waiting in the weeds 11 days hence, when the Preds return to Scottrade Center in St. Louis on December 30th for the final game of calendar year 2011. He’ll have to wait until Saturday, February 4th 2012, however, for his next shot at Music City redemption.

Belief System
Previous to the St. Louis game, on Thursday night, the 4-3 Preds victory over Detroit rivaled the Columbus Comeback in drama, with Captain Shea Weber scored the tying and go-ahead goals with less than five minutes remaining in regulation. After the game Trotz was mostly diplomatic, but more than a little hopeful that his team was finally returning to the form that saw them advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in last year.

Nashville’s 2010-11 squad was one of the NHL’s better even-strength scoring teams, but their power play was anything but, finishing 26th in the league with a paltry 15.2% conversion rate. The good news is, this season the PP is back on the beam; after five successive finishes at or very near the bottom 10 in the NHL, the Preds man-advantage once again is actually an advantage, checking in currently at number five in the league, with a sparkling conversion percentage of 21.5.

The bad news is, the team’s five-on-five scoring had regressed almost as much this year as the power play had in previous ones. However, with strong offensive showings against Columbus, Anaheim and Detroit, at even strength as well as on the PP, the Preds look as though they may be ready to string some wins together for the first time all season, and lay the foundation for an even deeper playoff run.

Pekka has been outstanding in goal, and team is now as healthy as it has been all season; good signs indeed as the Preds near the midpoint of the season.

Speaking to the media following the Detroit game, Trotz was effusive in his satisfaction that the Preds were able to recapture their even-strength scoring prowess if but for one game against a team who had dominated opponents that area all season. He indicated that Detroit had outscored opponents in the neighborhood of 60-30 (or a 2-1 ratio) in even-strength play this year, yet the Preds beat the Red Wings by an even-strength margin of 3-1; enough to compensate the Detroit’s 2-1 advantage on the power play.

“That’s a good sign for us,” Trotz said, “That’s something that we will continue to need to improve on; it’s been a strength in the past few years and I think it can be a strength again. Our power play is going pretty well, our penalty kill has maintained a pretty high standard…other than tonight; they got to us  a little bit… but for the most part we’re making good strides in our game and our group is believing.

“We’re starting to get some home ice belief.”

As the NHL season rapidly approaches the halfway point, the Predators are still a work in progress, but they clearly are progressing.

Déjà Vu All Over Again…Only Better?
The Predators will now take their season-high five-game winning streak and thus-far-successful road show to Washington for a Tuesday night rematch with the Capitals. Interestingly, as they head toward the Christmas holiday, they find themselves in an extremely familiar position.

At this time last year, on December 20, 2010, Nashville occupied the fifth spot in the Western Conference standings at 17-9-6 for a total of 40 points in 32 games. They currently stand at seventh in the conference with a record of 17-11-4 and 38 points, again in 32 contests this year.

If you believe what Barry Trotz indicated that he believes, this bodes very well for the Predators.

At this point a year ago, Nashville had played 15 home games and 17 on the road. They ended up with 99 points and a fifth seed in the conference, subsequently making it two rounds deep into the playoffs. Last season, however, it should be noted that the Preds had the third best home record in the entire league, and from this point forward a year ago, finished the season 27-18-4, with 13 of those post-mid-December losses coming on the road.

Comparatively this year, the team has equally divided their home-road schedule at 16 games apiece, and just as equally has garnered 19 points on either side. Though they have an equal number of points, they actually have one more win on the road than at Bridgestone Arena. They’ve proven that they are a much improved team on enemy ice, whose fearless success has led to a confidence that previous incarnations of this franchise have seldom displayed.  If the Preds have indeed figured their way out of the home ice funk they’ve been mired in for most of the year, that increased road success could well catapult them into a place of overall confidence unlike any time in their history.

Ya gotta believe that this Predators team believes in itself — on the road as well as at home.

The time for doubt is over.

The belief is back.

 

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finis

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