It’s “What If? Week” across SB Nation: a chance for fans to reflect on the painful moments that—had they gone differently—may have altered the future of our future teams. It’s a thing because, as sports fans, we live for misery.
And as Predators fans, we certainly have a lot of misery. Alex Radulov bolting before even reaching his prime, Ryan Suter bolting in his prime, Craig Leipold triggering a fire sale after the best season in team history, Sergei Kostitsyn’s existence...
But today, we’re rolling the rewind express all the way back to the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Predators and Blackhawks were locked up at two wins apiece heading into Game Five at the United Center.
You know the story by now. The Predators scored three straight goals to take a 4-3 lead over the heavily-favored Blackhawks late in the third period. The Predators had all of the momentum, and with two minutes left, it looked as if Nashville was on the verge of a 3-2 series lead.
That scenario looked even more certain thanks to a gift with 1:03 left. Marián Hossa shoved Dan Hamhuis head-first into the boards on a desperate forecheck. The call? A five-minute major for boarding. It was like winning the lottery. The Preds had the lead, they’d spend the rest of regulation on the powerplay, and Hossa, one of Chicago’s most dangerous scorers, would be in the dressing room for the Hawks’ last-ditch scramble.
Everything unfolded perfectly. The Predators won the ensuing faceoff in the attacking zone. With only four skaters on the ice, and goaltender Antti Niemi unable to get off for the extra attacker, all the Preds had to do was play keepaway and they’d win the game. Game over. Easy money.
Sigh, and then...
Martin Erat made an ill-advised pass that bounced off the side of the Blackhawks’ net, past intended target Jason Arnott, and onto the stick of Jonathan Toews. From there, Toews led the breakout out of the zone, Niemi came off for the extra attacker, and after three prime scoring chances, Patrick Kane finally scored the game-tying shorthanded goal with 13 seconds left on the clock. To add insult to injury, Hossa, who was NOT ejected for the hit, left the box in overtime after serving his five-minute penalty and immediately scored the game winner.
The Blackhawks took the 3-2 series lead, and would go on to win Game 6 at Sommet Center (throwwwwwback!) to clinch the series. Eventually, those same Blackhawks would go on to win their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, and their first of three over the next decade.
But just for one, glorious second, let’s back it up. What would have happened if Erat had held onto the puck? What if Patrick Kane never scored that goal? What if the Preds had taken a 3-2 series lead back to Smashville?
A Preds Cup Run?
So let’s recognize the worst-case scenario here: nothing changes. The Blackhawks very well could have still won Game 6, then gone back to Chicago and won Game 7 on their home ice and continued on with their push for the Cup. These were the champions, after all.
But think about this...imagine the Predators coming back to Nashville with a chance to clinch their first-ever playoff series against one of the NHL’s best teams. Imagine the intensity of the Smashville faithful. Imagine how much of a different FEEL that game would have had, and the different mindset the two teams would have had during the lead-up.
In their history, the Predators are 5-2 all time when they have a chance to clinch a playoff series on home ice, and those two losses each happened in 2018. Historically, the Predators have played their best games of the series in those situations.
So with that in mind, it’s not a reach to think the Predators would have beaten the Blackhawks in Game 6, derailing Chicago’s dynasty before it even began.
Then the question becomes, “How far into the playoffs could the Preds have gone?”
Assuming all other first-round matchups played out as they did, Nashville’s Round 2 opponent would have been the San Jose Sharks. Yeah, the same Sharks who have absolutely had the Preds’ number in the postseason. They’re also the same Sharks who finished with the second-best record in the league, and had already beaten the Preds three times that season.
But that being said, you still couldn’t have written off this series. Even though the Predators were the 7-seed, they weren’t one of those teams who snuck into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth. The 2010 Preds had 47 wins and 100 points. They also entered the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the Western Conference, finishing 11-3-1. The Sharks, meanwhile, weren’t necessarily sharp down the stretch. In fact, they had a six-game losing streak in the weeks before the start of the postseason. Their first-round matchup against the 8th-seeded Avalanche wound up being more of a battle than expected.
Again, it’s not far-fetched to think Nashville would have ridden that momentum to a Round 2 victory, and advanced to their first ever Western Conference Finals.
From there, the Predators would have played either Vancouver or Detroit for a spot in the finals. Either matchup would have been a tough test. But again, all three teams were fairly closely matched (standings-wise, at least). Detroit only finished two points ahead of Nashville in the standings, and, thanks to injuries and Hossa’s departure the prior summer, had struggled with depth issues all season. The Canucks only finished three points ahead of Nashville, and, like San Jose, had a mediocre end to the season.
So, could the Predators have reached the Stanley Cup Finals?
The answer: maybe.
The path to get there would have been ridiculously difficult, more so than the team’s 2017 run. The Western Conference that season was a minefield. Seven teams hit 100 points in 2010, and the 8th-seeded Avalanche actually had a better record than four of the Eastern Conference playoff teams, including eventual finalists Philadelphia.
And yet, you can’t look at any of those potential matchups and think “there’s no way the Preds would win that one.” In fact, you could make realistic arguments for each series highlighting why Nashville eventually WOULD win.
The Blackhawks Dynasty Derailed?
Now that we put that beautiful fantasy in our minds, let’s jump back down to Earth for a second. Let’s say the Predators beat the Blackhawks, only to get knocked out by the Sharks in Round Two.
Still, imagine how different the NHL landscape would be today if Nashville pulled off that upset.
The Blackhawks wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup, and you can’t help but wonder how much that would shaped the Blackhawks’ roster for the next several years. Remember, Chicago GM Stan Bowman essentially revamped the entire roster after the 2010 Cup win, switching the focus from “winning right now” to being viable and cap-friendly long term.
Would Bowman have opted to keep key cogs like Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien for one more year, rather than trading each for assets with a year left on their deals? Would they have conserved salary for other stars by not matching the Sharks’ offer sheet for Niklas Hjalmarsson—costing them one of the key members of the 2013 and 2015 Cup wins? Would they have invested in Antti Niemi, potentially keeping Corey Crawford from ascending to the top spot between the pipes?
Make no mistake, the Blackhawks still would have had plenty of talent, and would have been favorites in the Cup chase for years to come. But it might not have happened on the same timetable as it did, and the ensemble that finally lifted Lord Stanley would have looked very different than the team we’re used to seeing.
And to think, the entire course of the NHL’s history changed in a split second...
All because the Predators didn’t hold on to the puck.