Saturday night's Game 6 loss against the Chicago Blackhawks still hurts. With how dominant the Nashville Predators were through most of the regular season, a first-round exit may seem like a huge disappointment. And that's true, to an extent. No one should be happy to see their team bounced from the playoffs early.
However, there are still positive takeaways from this series to look back on. Now that we've had some time to settle down, let's take a look at both the good and the bad from possibly the most entertaining series of the quarterfinals.
Inability to Hold Leads
This is going to haunt the team all summer. The Predators scored first in four of the six games this series. In two games they allowed the Hawks to erase a multiple goal deficit. They also saw their lead disappear in Game 4, which preceded the grueling 3OT loss.
Ultimately, the team is responsible for that. Blowing leads is not something you can pin on any one person. But knowing Game 1 and Game 6 could have gone much differently if Nashville could have battened down the hatches a little tighter is enough to make you sick to your stomach.
For a team to go far in the postseason, they have to win games on the road. Plain and simple. Joel Quenneville did a masterful job shutting down the Preds lines in Game 3, and that continued in Game 6 after the first period. We may be singing a different song had the puck bounced a different way in one of the three overtime periods played at the United Center, but since it didn't we're stuck with a continuation of the regular season where a dominant home team found themselves less than stellar in an opponent's building.
Losing the Possession Game
Only twice through six games did the Predators post a score-adjusted CF% above 50. You can probably guess which games those were: the Game 2 and Game 5 blowouts. The rest of the time they were on their heels in their own zone for most of the game.
It's a point we've made over and over again throughout the year, but you can't win hockey games playing away from the puck. Think of Game 6, where the Predators were essentially holding on for dear life while the Blackhawks peppered Rinne with shots. In fact, they went damn near 30 minutes without a 5v5 scoring chance on Corey Crawford.
The Hawks and the Preds were both great possession teams during the regular season, but the Hawks were better. It showed throughout the series, and the Preds couldn't sustain an attack through most of the games.
Losing Mike Fisher and Shea Weber certainly didn't help, and after the Game 3 loss it looked like the series could be a lot shorter than any of us planned. But Nashville came back to push Chicago to 3OT and, even though they ultimately fell short, they battled through to make every fan in a Blackhawks jersey sweat bullets. The depth on the blue line also stepped up in a big way, which leads us to...
The Young Defense
When Weber went down, a ton of playoff experience went with him. Mattias Ekholm and Seth Jones hadn't played a playoff game in the NHL, Ryan Ellis had played 3, Roman Josi had played 10. All four played close to (or more than) 40 minutes in Game 4. Jones was thrust into top pair duties and grew tremendously as a player over the last four games. Ekholm is proving himself to be invaluable to the team, and Ellis keeps on being a little hellion with and away from the puck.
Even though the Blackhawks edged out the Preds in scoring chances and shot attempts, the blue line did yeoman's work to keep those opportunities less than they could have been. Cant ask for much more from a group of guys that can't even rent a car yet.
The Two Big RFAs
Colin Wilson and Craig Smith had themselves a series. Wilson epitomized the word "regression," going from 4 points in two months to five goals in six games. (He was clocking in a 26.3 Sh%, for those of you keeping track.) Uncharacteristically, he was one of the worst possession players on the team this series with a woeful 40 SACF%. Only the fourth line had worse numbers. Yet he was oozing confidence, which is exactly what the team needs from him should they choose to resign him.
Smith also tallied 5 points in 6 games (2G, 3A) and was possibly one of the better players on the ice. His 33 shots on goal still lead the NHL playoffs, and the next closest player is Alex Ovechkin with 28. Though he was below even in terms of possession (though only six players who played four or more games were above 50%) he still performed better relative to his team. Compare Smith's 1.71 CF% Rel with Wilson's -9.3.
Both players produced when they needed to, and definitely gave management plenty of reasons to get them signed this offseason.
Moral victories are hard to swallow, especially in the playoffs, but seeing the players that needed to perform do exactly that this series was fantastic. As was mentioned before, the Blackhawks are a bone fide Stanley Cup contender, and Nashville made every single game competitive, all without their best depth center and best defenseman. A few more lucky bounces and the series could have easily ended with a Preds' win. That's not something to take lightly.
This offseason is going to be about tweaking and supplementing what Nashville already has, rather than trying to revamp the roster as has been the case the last few years. What's becoming Nashville's core hasn't, or his just now, hitting their prime. Couple that with the additions of the last couple of drafts, and there is reason to be optimistic.
What happens between now and the start of the season is going to go a long way in determining if Nashville can make the playoffs a second year in a row, but as of right now there's no reason to think they can't.