Shaken AND Stirred | a Miniseries | Part 4

shaken_and_stirred_erat_03-25-13Nashville Predators forward Marty Erat was one of several key performers last week, as the Preds led off the stretch run with a pair of wins at Bridgestone Arena. Music City’s team enters the final six weeks of league regular season play on the bubble of the playoff picture. They’ll be attempting to make the postseason for the eighth time in the last nine NHL seasons. (Photo: Nashville Predators)

Meet the New Normal; Same as the Old Normal
Last Thursday morning, the new normal was alive and well at Casa AJ. That’s normal, as in, routine, regular, and repeatable; the ‘new’ part, well, that refers to the fact that in my case, the old pattern has recently experienced a new beginning.

Those of you who know me personally, and others who may know me only through this blog, probably have an idea of where I’m going with this. I now quite happily find myself once again in the throes of the workaday grind.

Accordingly, today marks the beginning of the eighth week in which my wife Michelle and I have reprised the delicate, early-morning tag-team ritual of orderly bathroom coexistence, which then migrates to a similar exercise in the kitchen for our collective-yet-separate preparation of breakfasts, finally concluding with a brief verbal game-plan for the day, over coffee and email before heading off into the morning to our respective places of employment.

Although she leaves the house after I do, Michelle is always the first one up and into the bathroom in the morning. Then after her shower, she rousts me and I take my turn becoming one with the steam and trying to remind myself that life really is better when you have a reason to get up at 5:30am.

The upshot of all this is the fact that by the time I join Michelle in the kitchen at 6:15, it’s usually the first time she’s seen what I’ve chosen to wear that day and accordingly, take the opportunity to gently point out that my socks are mismatched or that my fly is open before someone else notices it first.

Oh, the morning routine; it’s a rushed, sometimes harried, often precarious pitstop of daily existence. It’s one that I had missed for more than a year, and am so very grateful to once again be subjected to.

On Nashville Predators home game days, since I work in MetroCenter/Nashville, but live in Williamson County, I always go straight from work to Bridgestone Arena — meaning that what I wear to work is what I wear to the game. When I joined Michelle in the kitchen last Thursday morning, my outfit drew a particularly pointed comment.

“Wow, don’t you look nice, Mister Man-in-Black,” she said, referencing the apparent nod to my inner Johnny Cash.

“Oh, this,” I deadpanned. “It’s because I may be witnessing a death in the family later this evening.”

Michelle’s eyes rolled. Having lived with my goofiness for 34 years, she knew that I wasn’t plotting to return home that night with murderous intent.  The death in the family I was referring to was that of the Predators, should they be unable to turn things around Thursday night against a Calgary Flames team that had just six days earlier stampeded Nashville 6-3 at the Saddledome, in that western Alberta town appropriately known for just such activities.

I wasn’t trying to make a statement or anything with my funerary attire. I was just hoping that I might be able to work a little reverse psychology on the hockey gods.

The Predators were coming off a disastrous 1-4-0 road swing in which an iffy season appeared to quickly be making a swing toward the ‘bad’ side of the ledger.  Thursday evening marked the beginning of a four-game homestand for the team, as part of a stretch run in which 12 of their final 18 games of the regular season will be played on friendly ice.

This was it; by all accounts, it was now or never for Nashville. Every loss from here on out engages an exponential riptide effect that would pull them down, further and further away from the surface of a Western Conference playoff berth.

However, the jury was still out on whether this team was up to it.

For as good the idea of that period of home cookin’ sounded, coming off that road trip, the team seemed to be in a funk that appeared inescapable. Most notably disconcerting was the seemingly inexplicable ineffectiveness of goaltender Pekka Rinne, who started off the road trip with a sparkling shutout in Dallas, but then proceeded to drive straight off the cliff, giving up four goals on just 12 shots in Vancouver and two goals on two shots in Calgary before being yanked by Head Coach Barry Trotz for the second time in as many nights. It was tough to watch. For the last four games of the trip, Rinne’s save percentage was an extremely un-Pekka-like .599.

Nobody believed that Rinne could have simply ‘lost it,’ any more than there’s a reasonable explanation as to how Nashville could go from eighth in the league in scoring last season to dead last this year without losing a single scorer in-between. The frustration over what was happening, both to Rinne’s confidence and that of his teammates was palpable, as it has been for much of this lockout-shortened season.

It was a ‘new’ normal that neither the Preds nor their fans wanted anything to do with.

Reversing the Chase
The Predators are still far from being out of Western Conference race, but clearly something had to be done quickly, before their crisis of confidence reached the point of no return.

As of Thursday night, Nashville’s initial response has been pretty resounding, with the Predators turning the tables on Calgary 5-2, with both Flames goals coming shorthanded, meaning that they never should have happened in the first place, but I’m in no mood to split hairs; I’ll take it.

Then on Saturday night, the next team on the payback schedule was the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team riding a 12-game point streak. The ‘Jackets were victorious in each of the two previous meetings with Nashville this season, including a particularly painful 4-3 victory at Nationwide Arena  in Columbus on March 19th. This time, however, it was the Preds who provided the pain, scoring four goals in the first period, on the way to a 5-2 victory before 17,113 electrified fans; the 27th consecutive sellout at Bridgestone Arena, dating back to March 6, 2012.

Two wins does not a season turnaround make, but it was a promising start.

And what of Rinne? Many had surmised that if the Preds were to make the playoffs, Peks would once again be required to hoist the team upon his back and carry it through rough waters as he has done so many times before. But while he did make a number of key stops as usual, Rinne was as invisible as a goaltender can be over two games while still making 40 saves.

Against Calgary, Rinne faced 22 shots; against Columbus, it was 23 — bit it seemed to be half that. With the exception of a few stretches in the second period of both games, the Predators skaters were so committed to the forecheck and to blocking shots that you really never got a sense that Pekka was under all that much stress; and certainly not in comparison to many other games this season.

The key in both games was the Predators’ demonstrative commitment to what has always been a recognizable trademark of ‘Predators Hockey,’ yet which has largely gone missing for much of this season.

“Everybody talks about goals and that’s fine and dandy, but it’s about winning,” Trotz said his comments to the media following Saturday’s victory.

“You win because of your defense; everything piggybacks off of that. We piggybacked off of good team defense tonight. That was a 200-foot defense. That’s why the five goals happened. Everybody pushes to score goals; it’s not easy to score goals in this league, but you’ve got to be able to defend. If you can’t defend you cannot win in this league. I don’t care if they got two goals. All I need is three.”

When asked to explain the reason for his team’s somewhat schizophrenic performance this season, with great success at home and typically lackluster showings on the road, Trotz highlighted the simple, fine-line difference that confidence can make.

“Everything is about confidence, Trotz said. “You look at our last trip, in Vancouver, right off the bat we had a bad exchange [behind the net between Rinne and defenseman Scott Hannan, who lost the puck to the Canucks’ Andrew Ebbett, which lead to Vancouver’s first goal, just 1:25 into the game] and all of a sudden we’re chasing the game.  At home we haven’t been chasing the game, we’ve just been playing.”

And as long as the Predators can keep ‘playing’ — and winning — Trotz’s squad can keep their playoff hopes alive — one game at a time.

Next up, yet another bad loss rematch from the recent road trip: the Edmonton Oilers return to Bridgestone Monday night, as the Predators continue their quest for the new…old normal, and beyond.
Next: Epilogue — The Next Generation

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