Let the (Real) Games Begin
April 15th…. A day that millions of Americans have circled on their calendar. The stress, the anxiety, the sleepless nights, even all the number-crunching… your hard work all year finally comes to a head on this epic day. No, I’m not talking about your tax returns, it’s the PLAYOFFS people! Time to put away all the positives and pitfalls of the past year and let the NEW season begin on Wednesday night.
For weeks now it seems as though the majority of the Preds’ fan base has been clamoring for changes to the line-up (Cody Franson in particular) or venting about the team’s struggles to close out the regular season. Finishing out the season on a six-game losing streak is enough to turn even the most positive-thinking fan into a doubter. Nashville’s futility down the stretch cost them a division title and their first banner to be added to Bridgestone Arena. It would’ve been nice, but the way things turned out regarding playoff matchups, isn’t it better this way? Had Nashville hung on to win the Central, they’d still likely be facing the Minnesota Wild, the hottest team in the league since the All-Star Break. Is that what you really want? Probably not.
Enter instead the fabled Chicago Blackhawks and their incessant, bandwagon fans that infest arenas nationwide. After initially soaring without the presence of Patrick Kane, Chicago faltered down the stretch finishing just 5-8 in their final 13 games, including two losses in the final week to the eventual division champion Blues. Kane was practicing on the 2nd line Monday morning and as of now is questionable to play in Game 1, a few weeks ahead of his timetable as coach Joel Quenneville seems to already be playing mind games with the availability of his superstar winger. Look, nobody can question the importance of Kane and his clutch performances throughout his career. After all, he’s essentially a point per game player in the postseason with 91 points in 93 games. He could certainly tip the scales in favor of Chicago despite the Preds having home ice advantage.
I’ve talked before about most so-called experts and how wrong they were about Nashville this season. You can hardly find any of them that foresaw the team finishing better than 6th in the division, let alone 3rd in the conference. So it’s no surprise that most have picked Chicago to win the series in 6. Yes, Chicago has the playoff pedigree with 2 Stanley Cups over the last 5 years. What they also have is a ton of pressure to win NOW. It’s no secret the salary cap next season isn’t going to budge much and that puts a major monkey wrench into the plans for next season. It’s a virtual certainty that players like Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook will be moved to clear cap space out of necessity, so this may be their last gasp at a Cup for a while.
Something else to consider is that this isn’t the same old regime taking the Preds to the playoffs. Coach Laviolette’s resume speaks for itself as his teams have advanced past the first round in each of the last 4 postseason appearances. Included in that stretch is a Cup Final in his first season with Philadelphia when his Flyers lost to the very same Blackhawks in six games, with Kane potting the Cup-clinching goal. He would love nothing more than to be on the opposite end of the hand shake line with Quenneville as payback for 5 years ago.
The anticipation (along with the population of red) will continue building in Music City over the next couple days before the puck drops on game 1. I like the spin the Preds have put on the national anthem (having the fans sing) in an effort to silence the obnoxious fans who yell and clap during what should be a respectful silence. Unquestionably, Chicago IS the biggest rival for the Predators. But, much like they did to Detroit before realignment, they must dispatch them in the 1st round to be taken seriously by the rest of the NHL.