So it comes to this.
The Nashville Predators will face the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs. There are no more “magic numbers,” no more loser points, no more 3-on-3 overtimes, no more watching what the Flames or Blues are doing, no more conjecture about potential playoff opponents. There’s just a best of seven series against the Blackhawks.
A best of seven series against the Central Division champions. A best of seven series against the top Western Conference team. A best of seven series against a team which has consistently had Nashville’s number ever since Game 5 back in 2010.
The events that transpired on April 24th, 2010 would help propel the Blackhawks to win their first round match-up against the Predators in six games. The Hawks went on to beat the Canucks and Sharks to reach their first Cup Final since 1992. And, of course, they won the Cup by beating the Flyers in six games for their first championship since 1961.
Following that 2010 season, the Blackhawks would win two more Central Division crowns, two more Campbell Bowls, and two more Stanley Cups. The Predators would win... well, nothing.
One could make the argument that the Blackahwks’ come-from-behind win in Game 5 helped propel them to their current dynasty. And while I’m sure you remember what happened, just for the sake of it, let’s revisit that Game 5.
The series was tied 2-2 and the Predators had a 4-3 lead late in the game, thanks to a goal by Martin Erat. A win would mean heading back to Nashville with a chance to close out the series in six games and advance in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Then Marian Hossa boarded Dan Hamhuis and received a five minute major penalty. For just over a minute, the Preds would have a major power play to seal the game.
Then Martin Erat made an ill-advised backwards pass, presumably to Jason Arnott, that went to Jonathan Toews.
Then Toews started a rush into the Nashville zone. Then a rebound came to Patrick Kane. Then Kane scored to tie the game with just under 14 seconds remaining.
Then in overtime—just after serving the remainder of his five minute major—Marian Hossa scored on a similar rebound to win the game for the Hawks.
A few days later in Nashville, the Hawks would jump to a 4-3 lead early in Game 6. Antti Niemi would hold the Preds scoreless over the next two periods to clinch the series for the Hawks.
And that was that.
From there, the disproportionate successes of both programs escalated to the point of hilarity. The teams didn’t exactly head in opposite directions—the Preds would go on to win their first playoff series ever the very next year, and have found relative success since that 2010 season—but the monumental success of the Blackhawks has loomed large over the city of Nashville, even as it grew as a hockey town.
After 2010, an entire dynasty was built in Chicago, while a fledgling expansion team in Nashville would continue to pile up moral victories.
Since that season, the Preds sent long time head coach Barry Trotz packing, hired Peter Laviolette, made some nice trades, drafted well, and developed a reputation (whether deserved or not) as a yearly Cup contender. They’ve yet to accomplish anything real (#banners), but they are far from a team that hadn’t won a playoff game or series.
And yet they still have Game 5 on the mind.
There are only two Predators on the current roster that were around for that season, Colin Wilson and Pekka Rinne, but it’s pretty clear that the Game 5 ghosts still haunt the Predators as a team. How else do you explain last night’s loss to Winnipeg?
With the Predators needing at least a point to jump the Calgary Flames in the standings (who would eventually lose to the Sharks last night), they found themselves tied in Winnipeg 1-1. All the Preds needed was to hold on to a tie to jump the Flames. That would give them the 7 seed, where they would play the Pacific winner instead of Chicago.
Then Joel Armia tripped Ryan Ellis with about a minute left in the game. Another late Preds power play in which both the score and the game clock are in the Preds favor.
Then all three power play forwards commit very low to the offensive zone without possession of the puck.
That’s Kevin Fiala, P.A. Parenteau, and Craig Smith, all three below the goal crease, pinned there by the goal and two players. Dustin Byfuglien has the puck.
Then Ryan Ellis, who has been making great decisions all season, pinches up at the wrong time and gets caught behind Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.
Then Blake Wheeler scores to make it 2-1.
Then the Preds were down a goal, leaving them scrambling to get the point they just let slip away.
Then the game ended.
The Game 5 loss in 2010 and last night’s loss to Winnipeg aren’t even close when it comes to magnitude, but it is impossible to ignore the similarities. There are clearly some late game ghosts that haunt the Preds, especially when you give them too much room to breathe.
I’m not suggesting, by the way, that there are actual ghosts. I don’t believe in ghosts. I’d like to think there is a perfectly reasonable explanation behind every phenomena in the world. But when it comes to things like Game 5 and last night’s loss to Winnipeg, I don’t know what to tell you.
There’s something, I just don’t what it is.
When the playoffs start next week, the Predators will look to try to exorcise the demons (or whatever it is) that possessed the franchise back in April of 2010. And they’ll try to do it against the very team that invited the demons in the first place.
I just hope they don’t have to do it with a late lead and a power play.