Nashville Predators goaltender, Pekka Rinne, as usual, has covered a lot of ground for his team this season. Question is, will his teammates be able to go the extra mile for him as well?
Wow. Would’ja look at the time? How could the Nashville Predators already be hitting the halfway mark of even a lockout-shortened, 48-game 2012-13 NHL Season? Whether this is another example of time flies when you’re having fun, or the Predators’ seeing their season flash before their eyes, will be known soon enough. One thing’s for sure, however; this half-season joyride has sure as heck left me in the dust. But more on that later.
Right now there’s no time to waste on anything but trying to wrap our collective melon around this amoebic regular season in which the Preds have at times looked like worldbeaters, and at others, well not quite beat down, but certainly not the way that a lot of observers had expected.
And while that may sound like a veiled Indictment, it’s really not intended to be — that is, any more so than one might have castigated the team in 2009-10 or even 2010-11. In each of those seasons, Nashville languished in the bottom third of the league in scoring, ranking 18th and 21st, respectively. Nevertheless, they made the playoffs each year, and in 2010-11, broke through to the second round for the first time in franchise history with their first of two consecutive appearances in the Western Conference Semifinal.
The fact was, those teams could and did lean almost entirely on the brilliant, Vezina-caliber work in goal by Pekka Rinne to effectively render their lack of scoring prowess inconsequential. Additionally, they had an incredible knack for taking advantage of Rinne’s dominance in overtime and especially, the shootout, to claim a number of precious points in the standings. Still, everyone knew that something had to change in order for the Preds to truly get to the next level as a Stanley Cup contender. The team simply had to find a way to score more goals.
Then last season, things seemed to change. With basically the same squad who finished 21st in the NHL the season before, the 2011-12 Predators ranked in the top 10 in the league for most of the season and finished tied for eighth.
Yes, they stumbled in the playoffs against a very good and well-coached Phoenix Coyotes team who was peaked and primed to deliver Nashville a sucker punch they in no way saw coming. But hey — it was nonetheless a very successful step in their evolution as a franchise. That’s not rose-colored hindsight, folks; that’s reality.
Besides, we’d get ‘em next year, right?
I mean, there was…GONNA be a ‘next year’…right?
Well, sure; eventually.
And when it came, in this most non-traditional of topsy-turvy NHL seasons, something even more unexpected came along with it: tradition (…and not the good kind, either).
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
After the 119-day eternity they had to wait through before getting this season’s condensed show on the road, when play finally did begin on January 19th, it soon became apparent that it might take at least that long again for Nashville to get themselves rolling.
In keeping with what has become one of their more painfully typical characteristics, the Preds once again faced an uphill climb, coming out of the gate, “a little rusty,” in the words of Head Coach Barry Trotz. After a week and-a-half of play, they’d won one game, lost two in regulation, and dropped three more in overtime. Not exactly a start that says. “easy as 1-2-3,” but then again, nobody ever claimed that things would be that way this season.
Still, slow as they were in the early-going, as play continued on, Nashville remained competitive. Trotz hung his hat on the fact that after the first month’s-worth of games, his squad was one of the more successful teams in the Western Conference in earning points on a game-to-game basis. Even if they weren’t ultimately winning many of those extra-time contests to which they seemed drawn to like moths to a flame, neither were they coming away completely empty-handed on most nights.
That admirable-yet-shaky proposition held the team in fairly good stead through the first third of the season, leading Trotz to offer hopeful retorts to media concerns regarding their last-in-the-league scoring status like, “Hey, if we have to win every game 1-0, we will.”
Nonetheless, even while doggedly holding on to their middle-of-the-playoff pack position in the standings throughout the season’s first several weeks, the underlying angst of that other longstanding trait for the Predators loomed menacingly in the collective consciousness of PredsNation: a team that had for years struggled to score goals was struggling yet again. However, this time they weren’t just in the bottom third, they were the bottom; dead last in the NHL in goal scoring.
And once again while Rinne kept the team on positive ground for most of the way, it was only a matter of time before the law of averages would come calling for an overdue collection.
That happened a little more than a month ago.
After winning four in a row as January gave way to February, including back-to-back shootout wins in Los Angeles and San Jose, the Preds appeared to have solved the equation. They averaged more than three goals per game for the first time in any four-game stretch thus far in the season. Rinne was still stellar in net, and they were finally getting two points in those darned extra-time affairs instead of just one.
Then, after a particularly disheartening OT loss in Minnesota, the Chicago Blackhawks came to town, riding their record beginning-of-the-season run of regulation victories. They pretty much stuck it to the Preds in a 3-0 shutout that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate. That seemed to catch Nashville a bit off guard, blowing what precious little starch they had in their sails right out. They did rebound, once again, courtesy of consecutive Rinne whitewashes over San Jose and Phoenix at Bridgestone Arena; although the 1-0 victory versus the Sharks once again required overtime to decide a winner; and in their 3-0 blanking of the Coyotes, Nashville was held scoreless until the third period.
As Rinne went, so went the Predators, which is usually the case. It was at that point, however, that it seemed the Predators were required, either to begin scoring some pucks or be forced to repay Lady Luck.
Next: Light at the end of the tunnel, or an oncoming train?