No one would question the motivation of the Nashville Predators headed into their Tuesday night clash with the Vancouver Canucks at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. However it was the Canucks who came away with two points, in a hard-fought, 4-3 shootout victory, continuing their near-dominance on the Preds home ice. With a scheduled rematch in Nashville in two weeks, perhaps Head coach Barry Trotz should let Al Pacino speak to the boys to get them ready. (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures).
Going into Tuesday night’s third of four regular season meetings the between the Nashville Predators and Vancouver Canucks, the standings weren’t really the issue in the mind of some observers (well, okay…me). Far less important than winning in order to move up the Western Conference tote board, was the concept beating Vancouver on home ice – just to prove that they could.
The reality is that although Nashville would have leapfrogged the Canucks in overall points with a win in regulation, it wouldn’t have amounted to a hill of beans in the standings. Vancouver enjoys the distinction of being a singular powerhouse in a weak Northwest Division. Their closest opponent, the Minnesota Wild, is currently 13 points off the pace and scrambling just to make it into the field of eight postseason qualifiers.
On the other hand, the Predators find themselves in a Central Division stocked with four stallions and a lame mule. Anything could still happen between current leader, Detroit and St. Louis, Nashville, and Chicago, each of which are within striking distance. Needless to say, a division title for any of them will be a tall order to fill.
Alternately, as a near lock for the Northwest crown, Vancouver will automatically occupy one of the top three spots reserved for division champs in the conference playoff pecking order. Only a monumental collapse at this point could keep them from finishing ahead of the Preds in the overall standings, that is, unless Nashville somehow finds a way to win the Central Division for the first time in their history.
So while overall points are an important comparative stat amongst most teams at playoff time, they’re a near-specious consideration in light of the reality of current team rankings this deep into the 2011-12 season.
That being said, after the Canucks’ 4-3 shootout victory at Bridgestone Arena Tuesday – their fifth consecutive win on Music City ice, if you include the playoffs last season – the Preds still have work to do in vanquishing their demons from a year ago.
The Canucks longstanding dominance over the Predators in Nashville continues to be a disturbing trend, and while it’s no insignificant feat to at least earn a point against one of the NHL’s best teams, the reality is that the psychological aspect both ways could outweigh any consolation garnered in the point column. That’s because now, from last season’s playoffs forward, the Vancouver Canucks will never again be ‘just another opponent’ for the Preds.
As if their station as one of the Preds’ universal tormentors wasn’t enough, after having gone to war against them last postseason, Vancouver joins Detroit, San Jose, and Anaheim as the most recent in the list of Predators blood enemies, especially in view that utterly hard fought and well-contested series last spring, which the Canucks rode all the way to the Cup Final before finally succumbing to the Boston Bruins.
Never again will Vancouver underestimate or otherwise bring anything less than their ‘A’ game to bear when meeting Nashville in the playoffs or the regular season, because they know they have something that Nashville wants, that they don’t want to give up: an edge.
Or, as Al Pacino might say, that inch.
I would never accuse the Predators Barry Trotz of being out-coached. However, for as seemingly close in overall talent as the Predators now appear to be with Vancouver, you can’t really coach confidence; and that still seems to be the edge that the Canucks carry into the rink each and every meeting here in Nashville. They expect to beat the Preds in their own building – and more often than not, they do.
Now I fully admit that I may be making this observation through fan-colored glasses (and the fan-colored paranoia that comes with them as a trendy accessory), but I saw the same thing five and six seasons ago, when the offensively-talented, but playoff-inexperienced Predators teams of Paul Kariya, Kimmo Timonen, and Peter Forsberg hit the brick wall that were the San Jose Sharks of that same era. Talented and confident as they were, those teams of Nashville’s early success still lacked the swagger to truly swim with the Sharks, regardless of how good they looked on paper.
And now a new arch-rival has risen to block Nashville’s path to the Stanley Cup.
The pain of last season’s semifinal series loss to Vancouver is still palpable; as is the frustration of the way the games played out. The Preds pretty much went toe-to-toe with the ‘Nucks in their own barn; winning two of the three games played at Rogers Arena. Unfortunately for the Preds, their opponents reserved their own best efforts for the games played in Music City, sweeping all three on Nashville ice.
The Road is Long
The time to collect on last year’s cry of “just wait ‘til next year” has arrived. The 2011-12 season has gone a long way in proving that the Predators are an elite team in the NHL; that they’ve risen above the inconsistency that plagued their all-too-streaky season of a year ago. All indications are that with the experience of last season’s deeper playoff run, combined with the continued maturation of their young stars, the Preds are indeed a deeper, more talented team. However, until they’re dethroned, in the Western Conference, the road to the Stanley Cup runs through Vancouver. Before they can move on as an organization Nashville will ultimately be required to exorcise the demon of the Great Northwest.
Vancouver and San Jose are the last remaining Western Conference teams against which Nashville has consistently struggled in the post-lockout era. Whether up or down, playoff team or not, the Canucks have always made life miserable for the Preds. The relatively good news, however, has been that prior to last season, the Preds (who, by the way, have made the playoffs more often than the Canucks since 2005-06) had managed to avoid drawing Vancouver as a playoff opponent.
That scenario obviously changed last season, and appears likely to be repeated this season if the Preds follow their current path. Unless Nashville stumbles to the seventh or eighth spot, they would likely not meet Vancouver in the first round. However, we might well see a rematch with the Canucks in the second if both teams make it that far. The point is, there’s simply no getting around the Vancouver unless they’re upset in the opening round; they are the proverbial elephant in the room that must be reckoned with.
An Object Lesson
Speaking of elephants, although the circus has come and gone, Bridgestone fans were treated to an first intermission entertainment act that I found ironically appropriate for the game on the ice Tuesday Night.
The Russian Bar Trio is an acrobatic group out of Quebec, consisting of two men and a female acrobat who likely is/was a former gymnast; she performs feats of aerial daring and balance on a series of bars and planks, being propelled into the air in a most amazing way.
Assumedly, due to the limited time they had allotted to perform their stunts during a hockey game intermission, they didn’t use the actual ‘bar’ that is a part of the group’s name (but then again, maybe they all met in a bar…or got started performing in bars…or…whatever) but is seen illustrated below in the YouTube video I found of a performance they did a few years ago at a University of Michigan basketball game, which was also very impressive.
Tuesday at Bridgestone, however, they focused only on what appears to be their mainstay prop: the flexible, 4-inch wide by 2-inch thick flexible, rubberized plank, about the length of a women’s gymnastics balance beam (hence my previous assumption) from which the acrobat is launched high into the air.
The men support the bar at each end and use it to bounce the girl into the air as if on a trampoline. With each successive bounce, she performs increasingly elaborate (and dangerous) flips and twists; first through a hoop, then freestyle; remarkably each time, landing perfectly on that 4-inch wide target, from as high as 25-30 feet in the air. This girl was good.
I thought the performance a fitting extended metaphor for the game being played on the ice, which was also exhilarating, well-executed, and dangerous in the message the outcome might send to either team.
Both teams came out flying. The Canucks and Preds exchanged goals early on; then Vancouver reached back for a few tricks and struck for a pair of quick goals to lead 3-1 going into that first intermission. As I watched the Trio perform, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the arena wondering if the Preds could bounce back.
We didn’t have to wait long to find out. Nashville jumped through a few hoops themselves, scoring a pair of goals about a minute apart just 4:14 into the second period, and game was knotted at 2-2. Vancouver netminder, Roberto Luongo was impressive, stopping 37 shots, including his own acrobatic offering: a highlight-reel, stacked-pad save on Colin Wilson just past the halfway point of Period Two that was, dare I say, Pekkaesque.
The third period was also lively but scoreless, with the Preds putting another five shots on goal in the first six and a half minutes and keeping the pressure on for most of the period. They would end up uncharacteristically winning the shot count, 40-31, but in the end, the Preds just couldn’t stick the landing.
After a scoreless overtime period, and an exchange of goals in the third round of the shootout, Alexander Edler finally put the game away, tucking the puck in around goaltender Pekka Rinne’s stick to give the Canucks the extra point, but even more valuable, the continued belief that they own the Preds in their own barn.
No doubt Barry Trotz will make adjustments that will address the issues associated with the Preds’ missed opportunities, including their oh-fer in four power play chances, while the NHL’s #1 PP unit, Vancouver was able to make good on their only man advantage opportunity.
In his postgame presser, Trotz lamented the missed opportunities, referring to the “self-inflicted” issues of not killing the penalty, not scoring on their own PP opportunities, and the particularly costly bad line change that led directly to Vancouver’s second goal in Period One.
Trotz, however, praised his crew for the character displayed in coming back twice, from one goal in the first and the two-goal deficit in the second period, all against defending the Western Conference champs. He gave Luongo his due props for what Trotz termed, “a huge, almost game-changing type of save,” and it may indeed have been a game-changer, as Luongo stood firm in goal from that point onward.
All in all, Trotz seemed pleased with his team’s performance, asserting that he thought the Preds could and should have come away with two points in either regulation or the shootout. And to be sure, in anyone’s book, with the exception of about a three-minute stretch near the end of the first period, Nashville played as solid a 65+ minutes of hockey as they have all season.
Trotz waxed diplomatic. “It was a good test,” he said. “We’ll take the point; no disgrace in that; I thought we played pretty well in a lot of areas.”
Trotz obviously has to be encouraged by the Preds’ continued strong play. The team looks completely solidified in comparison to their somewhat gelatinous consistency at the start of the season. There are no major injuries at this time, no one on the IR, no emergency call-ups from Milwaukee are in the offing. Barring the somewhat anticipated-but-hardly-certain ‘blockbuster deal’ before the trade deadline a little less than three week hence, this is the team Trotz will take into battle.
Can they continue to get better? Trotz thinks so, but the question that has to be asked is, “how much?”
In his postgame press remarks Vancouver Head Coach Alain Vigneault didn’t tip his hand as to how he believes the Canucks stack up with their newfound rival, not that he necessarily would, yet during the playoffs last season was not above sprinkling in a little snark among his complements for Barry Trotz’s squad.
The Vancouver bench boss extolled the level of play on the ice from both teams. “I thought two good teams were battling it out, he said. He complemented both teams for taking the momentum back from the other throughout the game, and for the Preds for consistent ly exerting pressure on the power play. “On some of those power plays, they sort of generated a little bit more puck possession time in our zone. They played well, they played a hard game; they battled back.”
Nevertheless, it was Vigneault’s team that came away with the two points, and a reinforcement of their confidence playing at Bridgestone Arena.
Finally, in what I thought was one of the more interesting questions for Trotz, getting in his customary last word, Preds On The Glass blogger, Buddy Oakes asked the coach if he thought the game was perhaps one of the stronger efforts the Preds had made for not coming away with two points this season. Trotz agreed, reiterating the things the Predators had done well, again citing the great effort versus a top opponent, but also expressing mild disappointment for failing to get the two points, adding, “but at the same time, we were down 3-1 against a really good team, so to get a point you have to be a little bit satisfied. I’m not jumping for joy but it was a good point.”
In closing, Trotz reminded, “I’m disappointed that we didn’t get two points, but at the same time we were down 3-1 against a really good team so to get a point out of the game you have to be a little bit satisfied, but we’re coaches and players; we want to win every game. I’m not jumping for joy, y’know, but it was a good point.”
You never know what point will make the difference between being in the playoffs, being ahead of someone in the standings, or what have you. We’ll take the point and head to Ottawa.”
Trotz obviously intended to connote the positive, look-on-the-bright-side aspect of salvaging a point by coming back against a top opponent; that the point gained in the Predators’ effort against the Canucks could be huge in the final analysis. The fact is, we don’t know right now, and probably won’t know until the season and playoffs are over. However, once again, viewing that comment through my paranoia-colored glasses, the flipside of that reality could also be true.
Through a glass, darkly
There are two things about the Vancouver Canucks that have been painfully well-established over the last two seasons; one, they’re loaded with skill, and two, that they’re as good as they truly want to be. Typically, it’s only when they either lose the desire to do the uncomfortable things required to beat a top opponent, depending on skill rather than effort, that they are vulnerable.
The Predators live by their work ethic. However, while the team has upped the ante on skill with the addition of a completely healthy Mike Fisher, a fully-integrated and engaged Sergei Kostitsyn, uber-talented offensive rookie, Craig Smith, and the long-awaited arrival of potential power play monsters, defensemen Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi, the Preds still have a narrow margin for error when going up against the west’s top teams.
And though you simply have to put this one behind you, “take the point and head to Ottawa,” what if you can’t flip the script against a team like Vancouver? What if taking the Preds’ best shot and still winning is what finally becomes their ‘ah-HA’ moment?
We’ll find out in two weeks, on Tuesday, February 21st, when the Canucks return for their final regular season visit to The ‘Stone. It should be extremely interesting, particularly in view of the fact that the trade deadline looming six days later, on Monday, February 27th.
Will the Preds finally flip the script in their favor, planting a seed of doubt in the Canucks’ mind, sending the message that even with their best effort, there are no gimmes in Smashville? And if not, how might another loss at home to Vancouver affect the desperation level of General manager, David Poile’s effort to address the roster upgrade mandate of the ‘Big Two,’ Ryan Suter and Shea Weber to the prior to their commitment to sign long-term contract extensions?
I can’t see the future, but I don’t need my paranoia-colored glasses to see the possible implications.
I’ll be anxious to find out what these Preds are really made of.
I’m sure Barry Trotz is too.
Sorry for pissin’ in the punch bowl a little, folks. I’ll slip my fan-colored flip-downs back on now.
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