Nashville Predators forward Rich Clune whoops it up in front of the home crowd in Dallas last Tuesday night; his penalty shot goal highlighted the Preds’ 4-0 victory over the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Light at the end of the tunnel, or an oncoming train?
Okay, so before I go any further with this multi-part tale of apparent doom & gloom for the Nashville Predators, I need to stop and get something out here on the table that perhaps I should have stated from the outset.
Let’s be honest here; I realize that the subject matter and ongoing timeframe in which I’m delivering this story is a moving target — which is mostly why it took me so long to stop trying to get a definitive read on this team and to actually begin writing about them.
The fact is, there is nothing definitive about this season’s edition of Nashville’s hockey club, nor are there any easy answers to explain the shortcomings they’ve experienced in a markedly up-and-down 2012-13 season. By the same token, neither has there been any real or consistent thread to highlight the considerable number of shining moments they’ve also enjoyed, apart from the obvious fact that this is indeed a talented team, led by a talented head coach in Barry Trotz.
It really hasn’t even been a case of the Preds being characterized under the banner of “when they were good, they were very, very good, and when they were bad, they were horrid.” For the vast majority of games this season, the Predators have indeed been ‘good’ — most of the time — however, the frustrating thing for the fans has been that they simply haven’t been winning games it would appear that they should.
Apart from perhaps the 6-5 President’s Day matinee debacle in Denver versus the Colorado Avalanche, and a pair of bad 5-1 losses in L.A. and Anaheim on their last West Coast road trip, Nashville really hasn’t left a lot of true stinkers out on the ice, despite their mediocre record thus far — all of which renders most of their other losses somewhat mystifying.
It’s just been a weird season, y’all.
It almost seems as though the Predators have managed to create a third type of ‘extreme’ this season — an area that lies not so much in the midst of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but one that’s just plain nuts; a ‘Bizarro’ world in which the laws of cause and effect don’t always apply; one in which hard work and skill seldom produce their normally ascribed result; a place where ‘weird’ comes in all flavors — resulting in some strange losses and even stranger wins.
With that in mind, it seems one has to always ask the question; when this team — which began the season comprised of more than 95% of the same squad that last season garnered 104 points and advanced to the second round of the playoffs — finally does seem to be getting it together this season, is what we see the light at the end of the tunnel, or just an oncoming train?
Yes, it’s been a strange year; stranger even than we assumed it might be. But then again, sometimes that’s not always a bad thing.
Making Weird Work
A prime case in point might be the gritty, determined — yet Twilight Zone-ish, 4-0 shutout performance by the Preds on Tuesday night over the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center in Big D. As one might expect, this was a win largely influenced by the brilliance in goal of Pekka Rinne; but in all honesty, it wasn’t nearly as simple as just that.
Nashville was outshot by the Stars 32-21. The game featured eighty minutes of penalties, including a 10-minute game misconduct by your Captain, Shea Weber (who also scored a goal on a 55 MPH backhand changeup). In and amongst multiple fisticuff engagements in the third period, the Predators 5’10” (pffft, yeah, right) defenseman Ryan Ellis took on Dallas’ 6’1″ scrapper, winger Eric Nystrom, and nice guy forward, Mike Fisher went to-to-toe with Stars’ forward, Stephane Robidas.
As fellow Predators blogger, Patten Fuqua offered on Twitter, it was truly a “Cats and dogs living together” kind of circumstance.
Moreover, this Preds win was sparked by numerous other somewhat unlikely sources, namely, the speed and fast-twitch muscle reaction of a guy playing his first game back from a ‘reconditioning’ stint in the minors (i.e.: “Shape up or ship out, there, Dudeski”): Matt Halischuk. ‘Chuky’s marvelous, all-out effort on the night got the Preds rolling in the first period, when he stripped the puck from 20 year-old Dallas defenseman, Jamie Oleksiak, launching a 2-on-1 rush in the Stars’ zone that was finished by yet another Nashville skater trying to change the fortunes of his own notably slow start to the season: center Nick Spaling, who scored to put the Preds up 1-0.
But really; you wanna talk about weird? Midway through the second period, just as Preds’ pseudo-enforcer, forward Rich Clune was coming out of the box as his penalty was expiring, Dallas forward Jaromir Jagr ripped a blast from the right circle that was subsequently blocked high into the air. Almost as if it was an intended pass, the puck caromed all the way back to Clune’s position along the near boards, just outside the Predators’ blueline. Clune corralled the puck and bolted toward Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen. Just at the last moment, Stars defenseman Jordie Benn caught up enough to reach out and hook Clune with his stick from behind, taking him to the ice before he could shoot. The result, however, was the rare awarding of a penalty shot, which of course (in this game, anyway), the dutiful Mr. Clunov deposited through the five-hole.
The upshot of it all is that this was a game in which the Preds absolutely had to come away with at least a point — and they did better much than that: they shut out and shut UP the latest team to apparently still ascribe to the decade-old NHL wives tail that the Nashville Predators can be physically beaten into submission. Well, they can’t (although I’m sure there are more than a few Preds fans who have at some point on occasion wanted to smack the team upside their collective head).
All Bets Off
So why, you ask, do I find it so hard to just relax and smell the roses in the face of a fabulous road win such as the one 0n Tuesday night? Believe me, I’m trying; however, I’ve been burned on that count a number of times already this season, and I’m guessing that you have too.
It doesn’t mean that anyone should lose faith in Trotzy’s crew; only that I think it’s fairly clear that this team is not at the same stage, functionally, as the Predators of a year ago. Neither is this to say that Nashville won’t be there by season’s end; only that at this time, any sure bets are all but nonexistent in my opinion.
This is a team still attempting to find its true north, before its playoff chances go south. The bad news is, time is running out on an already too-short regular season. The good news is, the depth of talent on the Predators roster has already proven that it is more than able to impose itself on the team’s fortunes.
What happened Tuesday night in Dallas wasn’t just weirdness. As Trotz has said on more than occasion this season, good teams sometimes have to make their own luck.
Next: Better Days Ahead