Now that we can put a bow on this 82-game NHL regular season, it's time to reflect on what the Nashville Predators have done to this point, before we immerse ourselves in playoff action starting Wednesday.
Every team likes to think that they've "proven the experts wrong" and "defied the odds" to make the Stanley Cup playoffs, but in Nashville's case that's certainly true...
As the curtain rose on this season predictions about the Preds were pretty dire; most assumed that goal-scoring would continue to be a major issue, keeping Nashville in the Central Division basement and certainly out of the playoffs. For the record, I did call for a #8 finish, although of course I also had Phoenix and Colorado in the basement!
The fans, however, were ready for action:
October - a spooky start
Of course, the biggest controversy leading up to Game One had to do with which goaltender would get the initial start, and have the edge on the #1 job. Dan Ellis got the nod, and many Preds fans criticized Barry Trotz for not endorsing Pekka Rinne as the main man despite his lackluster training camp.
Ah, who are we kidding? The biggest story was whether "I Like It, I Love It" was on the way out as the goal celebration music...
The season got off to a rocky start in Dallas, when J.P. Dumont got leveled by a Stephane Robidas hit early in the second period of the first game. It was eerily reminiscent of the Alex Burrows hit from last season which slowed Dumont for weeks afterward, and given the concerns over team offense, it was a nasty blow. J.P. would miss nearly two weeks recovering from it.
The team, meanwhile, put themselves in a bad hole quickly. After winning that game in Dallas and their home opener against Colorado, the Preds dropped six straight games, and from some circles the "Fire Trotz" calls started coming.
In the middle of that streak, however, two important rookies made their NHL debut - Colin Wilson and Cody Franson each got their first Predators games in, although neither made a huge impact right away. "Willie" scored his 1st career NHL goal on October 21st in Boston (where he enjoyed so much success in college), while Cody got his the next night in Ottawa, a wild 6-5 affair that ended the losing streak. From that point on the Preds went on a tear, so they actually ended the month with a 6-6-1 record.
November - success on the ice, turmoil off of it
Having sorted out some team defensive issues, the Predators kicked it into a higher gear in the season's second month, going 9-4-0 with a seven-game winning streak in the middle. During that fortnight of awesomeness, we were treated to the "David Legwand Hat Trick" - a goal, an assist, and a new baby in the family all within the span of a few hours.
The major off-ice story around the Predators broke, as the team sued the Sommet Group for non-payment for their arena naming rights. What followed from there was a shameful, petty act by Sommet CEO Brian Whitfield, airing the dirty laundry of David Freeman's federal tax lien, which ultimately led to Freeman stepping down as the team's chairman (he still remains the largest single shareholder in the team, however). It still blows my mind that the head of a company, whose business involves handling customers' sensitive HR and IT data, would casually drop information like that into a newspaper interview. It had nothing to do with the dispute at hand, and caused a major distraction for the team, along with costly negative publicity, for months afterward.
It was also in that month that we started to hear the first rumors that Ryan Jones might be on his way out of Nashville. Despite being rewarded with a two-year, one-way contract over the summer, he had a hard time earning ice time regularly.
Away from Nashville, we also saw the issue of head shots start to rise up again, as the Penguins' Matt Cooke earned a two-game suspension for a blind-side hit on New York's Artem Anisimov:
December - when you pass it Shea, get out of the way!
The train kept rolling through the month of December, as the Preds racked up a 9-4-2 record that quashed the criticism of Barry Trotz from earlier in the season. The injury bug continued to dog the team, however, as a Shea Weber slapshot broke Jordin Tootoo's foot, causing him to miss several weeks.
The most encouraging aspect of the team's performance was perhaps the offensive attack, which clicked along at a Top 10 pace at even strength. Thanks in large part to the goal-scoring of sophomore winger Patric Hornqvist, the Preds didn't have to rely upon a single line to carry the load on a nightly basis.
As the off-ice issues continued to develop, the Tennessean maintained a troubling, skewed reporting stance that constantly portrayed the team as being one small step away from relocating out of town. I got fed up and canceled my subscription, and publicly called for other Predators fans to do the same. The ignorance and lack of perspective displayed by the paper's business reporters is simply mind-boggling sometimes.
And just before Christmas, we got a treat when Don Cherry gave Steve Sullivan a heap o' praise on Coach's Corner (jump to the 7:00 mark):
January - individual Preds start to shine
A 6-7-0 record to start 2010 began to hold the Preds back from the rest of the Western Conference contenders, and put a playoff berth in a bit of jeopardy. A five-game losing streak late in the month was frustrating, but since the five losses were by a combined seven goals, there was comfort in the fact that the team was at least competitive in each game.
On an individual front, the Preds enjoyed the fact that six players had been named to various Olympic squads, including Shea Weber and Ryan Suter for Canada and the US, respectively. We also welcomed a new writer into the fold here at On the Forecheck, which has helped tremendously to get the conversation flowing on a regular basis (thanks, Chris!).
The future of the Nashville goaltending situation became apparent when, after earning a shutout against Calgary, Dan Ellis was not given the next start, a home game against Toronto. Trotz had made that a tradition in years past, but clearly wanted to give Pekka Rinne every chance to get his game going; it didn't work in this case, however, as Rinne have up 3 goals on 8 Maple Leaf shots, forcing Ellis to come in to relieve him.
After a hot start was validated with continued production throughout the first half, Patric Hornqvist was the runaway choice as the MVP of the team to that point. Martin Erat had bounced back after a horrifyingly poor start to lead the team in goals, and at that point on January 4, David Legwand had 10 goals as well (too bad he'd only tally one more the rest of the way, ouch!).
I also dared to ask if Marcel Goc was the real deal; while he has ridden his increased opportunity to a career year with the Predators, it's a fair question as to whether "a 16 goal, 16 assist pace [is] enough from a guy centering wingers like Hornqvist, Erat & Dumont." Apparently the Predators though it was, as they signed Goc to a one-year contract extension. The other roster question had to do with whether it's worth carrying an enforcer in today's NHL. It's a tough question, but there's little doubt that Wade Belak is popular both among the fans and in the locker room.
February - Silver and Gold
With a 3-2-2 record, this month was pretty much a non-story in NHL terms. Yes, J.P. Dumont's relegation to the dog house was concerning, and Pekka Rinne pitched a shutout against Phoenix but didn't get the win, but February was all about the Olympics.
While the Preds had several players on the Olympic stage, none impressed more than Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, who each played key roles on their teams. Weber ended up being named to the All-Tournament Team by the assembled media, and Suter led Team USA in a number of key categories, soaking up massive amounts of ice time in all situations. They returned to Nashville with gold (Weber) and silver (Suter) medals. Heading into the tournament, Ryan Suter talked about what it meant to walk in his father's and uncle's footsteps:
Off the ice, Pekka Rinne ($6.8 million total) and Jordin Tootoo ($2.5 million) each got two-year contract extensions, and the team finally announced the naming of "Bridgestone Arena", to the relief of Preds fans everywhere who hoped for an end to the miserable Sommet saga.
March - Surviving the post-Olympic grind
As NHL play resumed with 17 games in 29 days for the Preds, thoughts turned to the stretch run for the playoffs, as the race was still wide open for the bottom slots. After starting the month 3-3-0, Nashville rattled off a six-game winning streak that pretty much assured their postseason berth. That streak, coincidentally, began after a terrible 3rd-period meltdown in San Jose; a nice reminder of how this team often responds to adversity. Pekka Rinne assumed command of the goaltending situation with four shutouts, and two "Star of the Week" honors from the league.
The other big story early in the month was the NHL Trade Deadline - despite being rumored as one of the most coveted defensemen in the league, Dan Hamhuis was retained by the Preds and they also loaded up for the playoffs by acquiring Denis Grebeshkov from Edmonton (for a 2nd-rounder) and Dustin Boyd from Calgary. Boyd has fit in perfectly so far, and Grebeshkov made a great impression with a goal and assist in his first game. Unfortunately, a nasty injury has kept him out of the lineup for several weeks, although it is hoped that he can return during the playoffs.
The team did finally waive Ryan Jones, who was picked up by Edmonton.
One factor which helped Rinne's cause this month was the decision by Trotz to (finally) break up the defensive pair of Hamhuis and Klein, a duo which drew heaps of criticism from the fan base all season long. While they had enjoyed some stretches of stability lasting a few weeks earlier on, the episodes of chaos were damaging both on the scoreboard and psychologically.
As the issue of dangerous hits continued to dominate league-wide discussion, Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke continued his reign of cowardly attacks. He ended Marc Savard's season with a cowardly, dangerous elbow that had "intent to injure" written all over it - but an equally gutless Colin Campbell (the NHL's judge in these cases) refused to suspend Cooke:
Eventually, the league enacted a new rule that can result in suspension for such hits for the remainder of this season. Over the summer, we should see something formalized which also clarifies in-game penalties. The players have been calling for this for years now, but finally the league has gotten on board.
Speaking of head shots, captain Jason Arnott suffered what "he believed to be" his 3rd concussion in three seasons late in the month, causing him to miss a couple weeks of action. It's absurd that the team couldn't just come out and say what everyone knew regarding Arnott's injury, but that's the modern NHL for you.
April - Fine tuning for a playoff run
That heavy March schedule left the Preds with just 4 games to play in 11 days of April, a welcome respite as they prepare for the playoffs. With a 3-1-0 record in these final games, the team has done what they can to position themselves for a decent position, but the final results won't be known until this evening. With a final record of 47-29-6, they hit the 100-point mark for the third time since the lockout, and still have a chance at finishing above Detroit for the first time ever.
Patric Hornqvist hit the 30-goal mark, building his case as the team's MVP and opening the question of just how high he could aim next season. Steve Sullivan tied for the team lead in scoring while playing all 82 games, a fitting exclamation point on his sensational return to the NHL. Rookies Cody Franson and Colin Wilson have become solid, contributing members of the team, and with a reasonably healthy lineup, the Preds should be a threat to make some real noise in this, their fifth playoff appearance.
In the end, these scored 217 goals, and gave up 221 (what you see in the standings includes a phantom goal given for shootout wins/losses). Normally that wouldn't be enough to lift a team into the playoffs, but these Preds have gone 42-19-6 in games decided by two goals or less. They've got the most wins in the league in those tight games, and perhaps it's a good omen for what's to come.
Get ready, Nashville - the Stanley Cup playoffs are right around the corner...
And oh, one last video. Given all the trouble that Matt Cooke has caused this year, it's fitting to close with Atlanta's rookie, Evander Kane, administering a little hockey justice to the NHL's 2009-10 Gutless Puke of the Year, Matt Cooke the other day: