Captain Shea Weber leads the Nashville Predators into battle Thursday night versus the Colorado Avalanche at Bridgestone Arena. Winners of seven out of their last ten, the Avs will be desperate for a win in their continued battle to capture a playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Preds will look to recapture their own sense of desperation from a year ago that launched their deepest-ever playoff run and transformed them into a Stanley Cup contender this season. (Photo: John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images).
Into the Looking Glass
One year ago today the Nashville Predators were a different team. They were still hard to play against; still hard-working and well-coached. Their corporate outlook was also the same: do whatever it takes to win, get into the postseason, and get as far as possible. That’s pretty much always been their M.O.
Six times previous to the 2011 postseason they had succeeded in their annual quest to make the playoffs. Each time they battled valiantly, but lost in the first round. ‘The little engine that could,’ they were often called, mostly because of their dearth of big-name stars and the limited budget under which the team was typically constrained – particularly so following their sale in 2007 to a group of local Nashville businessmen, whose pooled resources was enough to save the team from leaving Music City, but not on a par, realistically, with the NHL’s big-time franchises, who routinely spend to the salary cap and subsequently harbor the league’s most dynamic and talented players.
For even partially succeeding against that kind of a handicap, and accomplishing the unlikely task of getting some of those post-sale teams into the playoffs, Head Coach Barry Trotz and GM David Poile have often been lauded as ‘magicians’ and ‘miracle workers.’
And as such, despite being one of the NHL’s most consistent playoff teams over the previous seven seasons, the franchise was still never touted as a Cup favorite or expected to advance much further than the first round. Everyone respected Trotz for his annual feat in transforming Nashville’s proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse, but no one really took them seriously as Cup contenders.
The assumption still held that as soon as most of Nashville’s homegrown talent reached the point in their careers that they could leave via free agency, they’d be off to greener pastures, to organizations that could afford to give them their commensurate payday and provide a real shot at having their names inscribed on the Stanley Cup.
And while all those assumptions were true to a degree, Preds fans were confident that if only the team was able to break through that seemingly mystical first round barrier that things might change; that the culture might evolve; that the franchise could rise above the limited course to which it seemed eternally bound.
One year ago today, the Predators were a different team. They still suffered with the same issues of their aforementioned predecessors. They were a team of great potential, but that potential had only made brief appearances throughout the season, as witnessed by its penchant for streakiness that was alternately exhilarating and maddening to the fans.
To make matters worse, as a result of their wildly inconsistent play, on March 8, 2011, following a frustrating overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks at Bridgestone Arena, the Preds found themselves in tenth place in the Western Conference standings (and just one point out of eleventh).
I remember clearly that night after the loss, the number of solid Preds supporters who voiced legitimate doubts via social media channels as to whether Nashville had the chutzpah to break through the inconsistency that all but completely clouded their wonderful brilliance.
Fortunately, for everyone who bleeds navy blue and gold, that game served as the Predators’ wakeup call and immediately following that loss they turned the corner. They changed their culture; and in the opinion of many, their destiny.
From that point in early March, 2011, Nashville reeled off an amazing 11 wins in the regular season’s final 16 games. From the lukewarm waters of 10th place, they entered the postseason tournament steaming; a solidified unit that would go on to achieve the most successful playoff run in franchise history.
One year ago today the Nashville Predators were a team of hope. By the time the season was over, they were a team of expectation.
Perspiration vs. Desperation
Nashville’s moment of clarity came when they realized that the playoffs don’t start in April, but rather begin the moment a team becomes desperate enough to leave everything on the ice, every single night.
It’s not just about effort; it’s not just about talent; it’s about will.
It’s about transforming a group of hockey players into a team of Desperados.
It’s not about working hard; that’s a given in this most physically demanding of all professional sports. Even losers sweat. In the battle of desperation versus perspiration, desperation wins every time.
Sometimes that’s a tough thing to have to be reminded of.
Last Tuesday night in Nashville, the Predators looked into a mirror when they took the ice against the Los Angeles Kings, but apparently they didn’t notice the resemblance until it was too late. The Kings currently occupy a similar season’s profile to that of last year’s Predators team, struggling among 4-5 others in the attempt to claim the eighth and final conference playoff spot. They played the game as if their lives depended on it, overpowering their hosts 5-4 in a contest the Preds believe they let get away from them.
L.A. left town with two points and Nashville fans left the arena wondering if anyone had managed to get the license number of that truck that had just run over them.
That’s how Desperados play the game.
More importantly, it won’t be the last time in the regular season that the Preds face a team with that type of mentality. Oh no; they’re just getting’ started.
Running the Gauntlet
Despite their seemingly secure position in the current playoff standings, over the next ten days, Nashville will face a gauntlet of competitors against whom they must find their inner-desperado or risk being run out of the rink.
Tonight at Bridgestone, the Preds face another hot and desperate team involved in that end-of-season playoff scrum. The Colorado Avalanche are currently light years beyond the proficiency level of the team that Nashville faced on back-to-back dates in January, both resulting in Predators victories.
The Avs have won two in a row and seven of their last ten. Like the Kings, they’re playing their best hockey of the season at a time when they can afford to do nothing less. They are currently tied with Los Angeles and San Jose with 74 points, all three vying for that eighth spot (with San Jose officially maintaining it at the moment, based on the tiebreakers they hold over the other two teams). Just a point ahead of them, the Phoenix Coyotes sit in seventh place with 75 points.
Speaking of the Coyotes and Nashville’s old playoff nemesis, the Sharks, four of the Preds next five games will be against all but one of the teams involved in this ‘go hard or go home’ sprint to the playoffs.
After entertaining Colorado tonight and the Detroit Red Wings (‘nuff said there, right?) on Saturday, Nashville hits the road to visit Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles, and the Anaheim Ducks. The Coyotes and Sharks are the only two teams in that lower-tier group who are currently playing losing hockey. The Phoenix has dropped four in a row and is in danger of falling out of the top eight if they can’t snap out of it pronto. Likewise, the Sharks have lost three straight; including every bit of what little wiggle room they had just a few days ago.
Never mind the history of how tough Phoenix and San Jose have played the Preds in their own barns; if ever you could count on a pair of teams to be playing desperate hockey at this time of the season, it would be these two. The Preds will have to match or exceed that desperation level if they expect to come away from these games with any points at all.
And depending on how the schedule plays out over the next week, don’t discount the chances of Nashville’s final opponent of the roadtrip, the resurgent Anaheim Ducks, to still being in contention for that eighth playoff spot by the time they meet on March 18. Anaheim will be playing hard, if for no other reason than to kick a little snow into the face of the team that eliminated them from the playoffs last season.
The Playoffs Start Now
Once again there are 16 games left to play on the regular season schedule. Almost without exception, the Predators will gaze into the looking glass each time they take the ice. What they’ll see in most of their opponents is a reflection of themselves in a similar circumstance, at a similar point in the season a year ago; the point in which they became a different team, and changed their destiny.
Will they recognize themselves? Will they find that same level of desperation to enter the playoffs even stronger than they were in 2011?
Now’s the time to find out.
The playoffs start tonight.
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