Psst … the Predators are for real
After we published our experts’ picks for the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last week, an executive with the Nashville Predators emailed me to ask if we had perhaps “lost” his team’s logo. It was a not-so-subtle jab at the fact that not one of the ESPN prognosticators picked the Predators to defeat the Central Division champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Rest assured, no one is overlooking the Predators now, in the wake of their stunning, first-round sweep of top-seeded Chicago — a series that saw the wild-card Predators limit the powerful Blackhawks to three goals over four games.
Here’s a Predators Primer:
P.K. has been more than OK
Let’s start with P.K. Subban, the smooth-skating defenseman who arrived in Nashville last summer amid tremendous fanfare after being acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in a blockbuster exchange for longtime Predators captain Shea Weber.
It wasn’t all roses in Nashville at first for Subban, a former Norris Trophy winner. He missed 16 games in the first half of the season with an upper-body injury and struggled at first to adjust to a new system. Yet Subban still ended up with 40 points in 66 games during the regular season. He added two assists in the first round, but what caught Predators broadcast analyst Stu Grimson‘s eye was Subban’s play at both ends of the ice. “P.K. Subban dialed his game up in this series,” Grimson, a longtime NHLer, said on Friday. “I was really impressed.”
The puck stops with Pekka
Of course, when the talented Blackhawks did get quality shots, there was the brick wall — otherwise known as Pekka Rinne — tending the Nashville goal and thwarting almost every attempt. Rinne, a three-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy, stopped 123 of 126 shots directed his way. What makes this performance even more impressive is that the soft-spoken 34-year-old has struggled during the past couple of seasons with consistency, both during the regular season and in the playoffs. He has had no such issues so far this spring. One longtime NHL scout told me that he was impressed with the Predators’ overall devotion to detail, but that Rinne is a nice insurance policy when there are breakdowns.
Even in this Age of Youth, experience matters
The prominent narrative of the first round of the playoffs has been whether talented but youthful lineups can have success in the postseason. The Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs have answered in the affirmative so far. But one of the keys to the Preds’ early success, according to Grimson, has been their maturity and experience. He credits veteran head coach Peter Laviolette — who became just the second U.S.-born NHL head coach to reach the 500-win plateau when he did so earlier this season and who guided the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup championship in 2006 — with keeping his troops grounded
“He’s very effective at communicating tone, tempo, approach,” Grimson said.
Of Predators players who appeared in all four games of the first round, only three did not record a point. That depth should keep them in good stead moving forward.
They accomplished something special in sweeping Chicago. “But they’re not a group that’s going to enter the next round with their head in the clouds,” Grimson said.