It’s ‘Winnin’ Time’ (Or Else) for the Predators: A Commentary

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Their jersey colors are the same, will their resolve be as well? Los Angeles Lakers great, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson (left) spearheaded ‘Winnin’ Time’ for his team’s 1980s NBA dynasty.  Nashville Predators Captain, Shea Weber (right) will attempt to do the same for his team as they head down the stretch seeking another invitation to the NHL postseason party.


Annnd Boom Goes the Homestand.
They say that all good things must come to an end, but the Nashville Predators’ modest three-game win streak didn’t merely come to an end on Thursday night at Bridgestone Arena – it hit the wall with a resounding thud. The Phoenix Coyotes lit the lamp six times in the first period to defeat the Predators 7-3, ending what had been an extremely successful four-game homestand on a decidedly sour note.

In a rare open display of dissatisfaction with their hometown heroes, Bridgestone’s 29th consecutive capacity crowd added a smattering of boos throughout the game to punctuate what most feel was a significant loss, given the fact that it came in the way it did and when it did, with so much on the line for a team so deeply invested in a race to the playoffs. There is still a lot of time left for Nashville to claim the seventh or eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference, but there is NO time for another game like Thursday’s which, to a man, left the team in a state of disbelief and resignation; that’s not a good place to be when you compete in a sport that pivots on the level of confidence and will imposed by its principals.

The Preds need to bounce back, and as Head Coach Barry Trotz indicated after the game Thursday, they need to reengage and return to the mentality and level of play they showed in their previous three victories on home ice.

“I don’t want to dwell on this; I’m embarrassed by [the loss],”  Trotz said, “… but we’re going to go forward – we have no choice – this game is done; it’s a game we blew early and we’ll just go forward. That’s all we can do.”

It looks like the Preds could use a little Magic right about now.

It’s Winnin’ Time
Nearly 35 years ago, Los Angeles Lakers guard, Earvin Magic Johnson almost singlehandedly spearheaded a professional basketball dynasty, leading the Lakers to five NBA titles over nine seasons, in a fabulous thirteen-year, Hall of Fame career. Perhaps the most famous of the many colorful phrases the infectiously-likable kid from Lansing, Michigan coined in those days of Laker dominance was, “It’s winnin’ time”— which referenced usually the last four minutes of the fourth quarter in a toughly-contested matchup; the point at which the Lakers would typically seize their own destiny, take control of the game, and bring home the victory. It was the kind of pivotal, emotionally-heightened, all-cards-on-the-table moment that athletes of Johnson’s ilk live for. It’s the level of competition that drives, defines, and creates champions. It’s also an emotional destination at which the Predators have failed to arrive far too many times this season, and one for which they’d better find their bearings soon if they have serious intentions of being a playoff team one month from now.

Of the Predators’ 14 remaining games, six are on the road, but their final swing of more than a single game away from home begins today. Nonetheless, this two-game roadie holds the potential of being a kind of “out of the frying pan and into the fire” experience if they’re not careful.

This afternoon they’ll take on the Colorado Avalanche in a rare 2:00pm CDT matinee, finishing up the mini-trip with an April Fool’s Day affair in Windbag City on Monday night against the Central Division-leading Chicago Blackhawks. It will be just the second meeting of the season between the ‘Hawks and Preds; however, the two teams will be doing some serious making-up-for-lost-time over the upcoming first week of April.

A Tough (But Short) Row to Hoe
Beginning on Monday, the Preds will play the Blackhawks three times in seven days, then a final time on April 19th. Moreover, only one of those four games (next Saturday night) will be played here in Nashville.

Unfortunately, that’s no April Fools.

It’s fairly safe bet at this point that given the challenging circumstances in which the Predators find themselves with regard to their quest for an eighth postseason appearance out of the last nine NHL seasons, the road to the playoffs for Nashville will likely be going through Chicago.

This team has run out of wiggle-room; it can simply no longer afford to have any more bad weeks – or bad games that lead to bad weeks – and still expect to make the playoffs.

Against the Blackhawks, they’ll need more of the kind of effort that typified last week’s home victories over Calgary, Columbus, and Edmonton. Lay another stinker on the ice like the game the other night against Phoenix and the ‘Hawks might just score ten goals in the first period.

Maintaining Focus
However daunting the upcoming spate of games versus Chicago may appear, the Preds will first need to focus on their opponent at hand, the Avs. They need only recall what happened the last time they traveled to the Mile High City, the game on Martin Luther King Day which was also a matinee, as well as a contest that Nashville let get away, due largely in part to a lack of engagement somewhat similar to that of the Coyotes debacle last Thursday.

Colorado is a team that the Preds have handled well in recent years, but is also a squad loaded with young, net-crashing, offensive talent – a fact that they reminded the Preds of back on February 18th.  Led by forwards Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, and Aaron Palushaj, the Avs burned Preds’ backup goalie Chris Mason for six markers in two periods, including two just 13 seconds apart.

Sound familiar?

Jekyll and Hyde on Skates
After Thursday’s wake-up call versus the Coyotes, it would seem the last thing the Predators want is to meet another hungry team on a losing streak, as was the case with the Coyotes and their seven-game losing streak that followed them into Music City two nights ago. Nonetheless, that’s just what Nashville will get this afternoon in Colorado, losers of eight out of their last nine.

The question then is that which now becomes a daily liturgy for Nashville: which team will show up wearing Predators sweaters when the players take the ice in Denver? Will it be the one that we saw on Thursday – the one that couldn’t get out of its own way?

Or will it be the one from the three games previous; a team that was engaged, aggressive, and supportive of its goaltender; the one that brought the game to its opponent and not the other way around.

In this Jekyll-and-Hyde of a hockey season for Nashville, it’s sometimes hard to tell which way the wind is blowing.

This team, perhaps more so than any other in Predators history, has clearly demonstrated that they are their own worst enemies. They can defend with anyone in the NHL, and are capable of putting the puck in the net with regularity, yet inexplicably, they can’t seem to find a way to do either consistently.

The days of blaming the Preds’ ultimate lack of success on a dearth of scoring talent are pretty much over. This team can score goals when they put their mind to it. That much was proven last season when with the same offensive personnel as the current squad, Nashville finished eighth in the league in scoring after not even sniffing the top ten since 2006-07, when the likes of Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Steve Sullivan, Jason Arnott, J.P. Dumont, Scott Hartnell, and Kimmo Timonen patrolled the ice for the Navy and Gold.

A lot of water has flowed beneath the bridge that connects that best and worst of times for the Predators franchise until now, but from where I stand, that creek’s just about dried up.

This is no longer ‘The Little Engine That Could.’

This is no longer the team that can’t afford to pay its top players.

This is no longer a city that doesn’t deserve hockey.

This is no longer a city that’s ‘just happy to be here.’

It’s time for the team whose motto is, “NO EXCUSES” to find a way to win.

It’s time for the team whose nickname is ‘Predator’ to stop being ‘prey’ to lesser opponents.

It’s winnin’ time, Nashville; get your Nike on and just do it.

 

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