The Main Takeaway
Context is our most important tool when looking at this season’s Nashville Predators. They lost tonight, and it sucks. They’ve been bounced from the first round of the playoffs for the third straight season, which also sucks.
But in context, seeing the Predators at this point now feels like a victory of sorts.
Think about where we were at the beginning of March. The Predators were treading water. A rebuild seemed to be more a matter of “when” than “if,” as the fans swallowed the courage needed to bid adieu to the likes of Mattias Ekholm and Filip Forsberg.
Then, they started winning.
It was a few wins in a row at first. We saw just a handful of good performances from up-and-comers like Alexandre Carrier and Eeli Tolvanen, and games where Juuse Saros stole a win with a handful of clutch saves.
Then those “winning spurts” became more frequent. The Predators started climbing back up the standings. Juuse Saros’s “good past few starts” evolved into talk of him being the hottest goaltender in the NHL. Those fun up-and-comers earned permanent jobs on the roster.
All of a sudden, the Predators crawled back into contention. They had a 2% chance of making the postseason in mid-March. Not even two months later, they had clinched a playoff spot.
But even with the mantra as the league’s hottest team, it still felt like this team got no respect. The Hurricanes were heavy favorites expected to wipe the floor with the Preds. This team just lucked out thanks to hot goaltending. They’d fall back to Earth against the division’s most dynamic team. It would be a quick, embarrassing series for the Predators.
That didn’t happen... at all.
The Predators were in this series every step of the way, and I will not hear any arguments to the contrary. They stood toe-to-toe with a team that should be a Cup favorite. Games three through six were among the best the Predators played all season.
Juuse Saros has cemented himself as the Predators’ franchise goaltender, erasing any doubts fans had after his short hot streak in 2020. We saw new stars in Alexandre Carrier and Tanner Jeannot become mainstays in the lineup. And we witnessed many stars burdened with question marks, like Ryan Johansen, Mattias Ekholm, and Mikael Granlund, bounce back to become the team’s best players.
There will be uncertainty this offseason. David Poile and John Hynes will have tough decisions to make with this group of players. It’s quite possible next year’s team won’t have the same look at this year’s.
But before we get lost in the shuffle of the NHL’s silly season, and while we still hurt from an early elimination, I hope we can take some time to reflect on how incredible this Nashville Predators season has been.
Well... talk about a hot start.
Right out the gate, a Predators turnover in the neutral zone led to a rush by Carolina. A tic-tac-toe passing play between Aho, Svechnikov, and Teravainen ultimately wound up being a bust, as the shot missed the net.
Less than a minute later, the Preds would get a chance of their own. Unlike the Canes, they would not squander it. Nick Cousins redirected an Erik Haula pass past Nedeljkovic to give the Predators a 1-0 lead just 1:44 into the game.
The celebration in Smashville would be short-lived, however. Just two and a half minutes later, Brock McGinn silenced the crowd with his third goal of the series, this time with a wrap-around wrist shot that beat Saros over his right shoulder.
There must have been a quota on quality chances for the first period, because after the 1-1 goal, a whole lot of nothing happened. Both teams had some chances here and there — the best coming when Filip Forsberg made an acrobatic play to prevent a clear from the Carolina zone, leading to Matt Duchene nearly finding Ryan Johansen all alone back door. But unforced errors kept either team from building any momentum. Things like broken passes in transition or giveaways during zone entry attempts stalled promising-looking plays.
Sure enough, a mistake would lead to an advantage in the second period. Nedeljkovic hesitated clearing the puck from behind his net. Granlund’s pressure caused the Canes’ goalie to misplay the puck. Ellis kept it in the zone and shot it back down low to Granlund, who made a beautiful turnaround play the sneak the puck past Nedeljkovic for a 2-1 Predators lead.
That goal lit a fire under the Predators, who may have played their best hockey of the entire series in this second period. They forced Carolina into more bad turnovers in their own zone and nearly capitalized. Nedeljkovic had to respond with a couple of quality saves.
For a moment, it looked like Carolina would get a prime opportunity to shift momentum back their way. Mikael Granlund tried a poke check on Marty Necas, but missed the puck and knocked Necas off his skates. However, just a minute into the power play, a Dougie Hamilton interference call leveled things up. Things went from bad to worse for the Canes when an Aho slash put the Predators on a 5-on-3 power play.
Then things went from bad to worse to... worst(?) for Carolina on the ensuing 5-on-3. Roman Josi found Johansen all alone in the slot, and Joey finished the easy tap-in to put the Predators up 3-1, their first multi-goal lead of the entire series. The Predators had a couple more solid chances on the remaining power play, but failed to convert.
The buzz around Carolina’s net continued after the third goal, but a Matt Benning interference call ultimately helped the Canes get back in it. A botched clear by Ekholm on the ensuing power play, combined with Carrier falling out of position, opened the door for a Hamilton-to-Aho tip-in play that cut the lead to 3-2.
That goal set the Predators back on their heels a little bit. Carolina had a big “push-back” sequence (as quoted by Chris Mason) and Nashville simply couldn’t clear the puck from their own zone. It almost cost them when a Jaccob Slavin shot beat Saros, but rang off the post.
The Predators nearly capitalized on a sloppy Carolina play of their own when Colton Sissons and Tanner Jeannot broke loose for a 2-on-1. However, Sissons didn’t appear to get a good handle on the pass, and Jeannot’s readjusted shot missed the net. Looking back at the replay, Nedeljkovic was NOT in a great position to stop that had Jeannot put better wood on that shot. The second period ended with the score still 3-2.
The start of the third period was NOT great for anyone with sports-induced anxiety. The Hurricanes absolutely dominated the first five minutes of the period, keeping the puck in the Predators’ zone for almost the entire time. Eventually, a Jesper Fast breakaway forced Ryan Ellis to take a slashing penalty.
Juuse Saros, however, was ready for that kill. The Preds’ netminder stonewalled the Canes on two point-blank changes. Maybe the best scoring chance of the entire game came right after the penalty ended. An Erik Haula turnover led to a one-time chance at a WIDE open net. Instead, Juuse slid over just in time to get in front of the shot. EXHALE
And if preserving a lead against the division’s top team wasn’t already hard enough, the Predators lost the services of Roman Josi with ten minutes left in the period. The captain took a questionable hit from Jordan Martinook and looked a little dazed while skating to the bench. Josi would not return to the game, forcing the Preds to play with five defensemen.
Saros, for his part, did everything he could to keep the playing field level. He withstood flurry after flurry of shots, including a number of second-chance opportunities. He earned the Smashville Standing O during the under-8 T.V. timeout for his efforts.
Unfortunately, the Canes would finally break even. After back-to-back icings trapped a tired Preds core on the ice, a positioning breakdown off the faceoff allowed Dougie Hamilton to get wide-open just above the crease, tapping in an easy centering pass to make it 3-3.
Each team put together a couple of decent chances as the period wound down. But, alas, it was overtime for the FOURTH STRAIGHT GAME BECAUSE OF COURSE IT WAS.
Alas, it would not take long for the game, and the series to be decided. Aho deflected an innocent-looking Slavin shot past Saros for the winner. Thus ended the Nashville Predators’ season.
The OTF’s Three Super-Duper Stars of the Game
3. Mikael Granlund - A goal and an assist tonight, as well as a handful of great defensive plays. Please, David Poile, do whatever you need to do to sign this guy long-term.
2. The Smashville fans - Five months ago, we watched the Predators play hockey in front of an empty Bridgestone Arena. Compare that to tonight’s crowd, one of the most vocal I’ve heard in recent memory. And yes, considering the arena was only about three-quarters full, that’s saying a hell of a lot about this crowd. You guys showed up, Smashville.
1. Juuse Saros - As Ted Lasso would say, “that guy had more saves than a Baptist preacher.” Juuse was the only reason this game wasn’t over in the third sooner, much like he’s the main reason the Predators even got this far in the postseason, much like he’s the main reason the Predators even MADE the playoffs just weeks after a rebuild seemed imminent.