Presenting your 2019-20 Central Division champions: the Winnipeg Jets.
I was willing to hand that sentence over pretty much as easily as the Nashville Predators handed over the most important game of the season to date on Saturday night.
And I’m not going to wait until the usual spot in this column to go on a mini-rant. I’m sending it right now.
This team is simply not mentally tough enough to win a Stanley Cup.
It’s not mentally tough enough to win the Western Conference.
And it’s likely not mentally tough enough to win a playoff series.
Saturday night in Winnipeg was the best example of a team not believing in itself enough to think it can be the better team. A team that thought it was going to get the first goal, sit on a 1-0 lead, and hope that it would hold up in a tough environment.
Then, the turning point. Calle Järnkrok’s deflection goal gets overturned (whether you think it should have been or not is irrelevant for terms of this exercise), and Winnipeg responds, blitzing the Predators 5-0.
Once the decision was made to wipe out Järnkrok’s goal, I wrote the words “game over” on my notepad. Not because the goal had been overturned, mind you, but because of the body language of the players going back to the bench. Heads down, shoulders slumped, a defeated attitude.
They thought they were going to have a lead, trap the Jets out of existence and get out of Winnipeg two points closer to a Central Division title.
Instead, the Jets took the lead and never really looked back. And when Filip Forsberg hit the post with a wide-open net beckoning him to score, that really was the end of it.
Now, barring a monumental crash by the Jets, the Preds are fighting for home-ice advantage in the first round, hoping the St. Louis Blues don’t catch them.
Why? It hasn’t really helped in franchise history. Last year was just the second time the Predators won a playoff series as the higher-seeded team. They haven’t had many opportunities (they’re 2-4 all time as the higher-seeded team), but they also haven’t benefited from it much, either.
However, they haven’t responded well to adversity this season. They can’t rely on getting a timely power-play goal. They find themselves in the box too often because of poor positioning (or poor effort leading to a desperation play). And they’re undersized compared to the teams they need to beat to advance.
Right now, I don’t like their chances of getting out of the first round against anyone. They’re going to get a bad break or two—officiating at all levels in all sports is arguably the worst that it’s ever been and it’s rapidly becoming an epidemic—and they’ve got to find a way to respond better to those bad breaks than they have in recent memory.
This team is playing itself right into an underdog role, and while they’ve generally relished it in past years, this time it might be simply a flameout.
Maybe that wasn’t a mini-rant. Oh, well.
On with it:
The Fast Money Round
Tuesday: Predators 3, Toronto Maple Leafs 0
Like the first game, not at all what we might have expected out of these two teams. But the result was the same—a shutout.
Thursday: Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Predators 1 (shootout)
Nashville got a point out of a game it really had no business getting a point out of against the Pens.
Saturday: Winnipeg Jets 5, Predators 0
Biggest game of the year? Biggest letdown of the year. This should have been 10-0.
Player of the Week
Brian Boyle and Wayne Simmonds had big contributions to help take down Toronto. But Pekka Rinne deserves this for having to put up with the clown show in front of him on Saturday and blanking the Maple Leafs for the second time this season.
Favorite Thing of the Week
At least there’s Pekka’s new puppy to brighten the day a little:
Pekka Rinne’s new puppy Pabla! pic.twitter.com/k6v8RQ9V9U— Kayla Anderson (@KaylaAndersonTV) March 20, 2019
Before I hand out this week’s grade, I’m not forgetting about Austin Watson’s return to availability—that’s a big step for him in his recovery. Just to be in a position to be able to potentially come back to the ice is progress. What it means down the line for him and the Predators remains to be seen, but that’s still something worth mentioning.
This Week’s Grade
Now, with the matters on the ice, the inconsistency on a night-to-night basis is still what will get this team beaten in the playoffs. The effort against Toronto was good, and getting back to detail-based defense doesn’t hurt. But that disappeared 48 hours later, and was MIA on Saturday as well.
Any goodwill that came out of Tuesday was washed out by the rest of the week, and then some. Nashville really needed all three games to stay in the division race. That didn’t happen, and now home-ice in the first round is in doubt, too. Right now, I wouldn’t take the Preds to beat anyone in a best-of-7 series with their inconsistency. I put a lot of weight on Saturday night’s game, and they failed that test. This week’s grade: D
Who’s your Player of the Week for Week 24?
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