The Nashville Predators season came to a heartbreaking end on Sunday as they lost 2-0 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Predators players and fans watched the Penguins celebrate their Cup victory on Nashville’s home ice. The Predators were two wins short of completing their Cinderella story, but in the end could not dethrone the reigning champions. Once the pain and hurt of defeat subsides, there will be left a glowing light surrounding the Predators 2016-2017 season. The team now knows the taste of success. Their appetite for it will only grow, and they have the team in place to be able to soon challenge for the Cup again.
Five Takeaways from the Nashville Predators Playoff Run
Pekka Rinne is Still Number One in Nashville
This postseason saw Pekka Rinne redeem himself in the eyes of many hockey fans and media alike. Throughout the season, backup Juuse Saros posted solid numbers. In 21 games played, with 19 starts, Saros accumulated a .923 save percentage with a 2.35 goals-allowed average. With Saros’ strong play and a few shaky stretches by Rinne, some called for Saros’ promotion to starting goalie.
The Predators management and coaching staff stuck by Rinne. He has been their number-one goalie for nine years now. He has been solid, if not totally consistent, throughout his tenure. No goalie is immune from ups and downs. Rinne was at his best in the two seasons from 2010 to 2012 where his regular season save percentage hovered around .930. Since then his numbers have trended downward as he ages.
At 34 years old, Rinne put up respectable numbers this year. He finished the regular season with a .918 save percentage and a 2.42 goals-allowed average. Then something happened to him. Rinne was fantastic through the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Chicago Blackhawks managed to score just three goals against him. He outplayed another hot goaltender in Jake Allen in Round 2. His only blemish throughout the playoffs was his inability to win in Pittsburgh. This can not all be blamed on Rinne, but it was striking the difference between his numbers in Pittsburgh versus his numbers at home.
At the end of the day, despite a few shaky moments, Rinne was the team’s most valuable player. He finished the postseason with a .930 save percentage and a 1.96 goals-allowed average. Rinne showed that he is still capable of great play. He regained the trust of fans, and likely built back his confidence in himself.
The Kids are Alright
Due to injury, the Predators were forced to rely on new faces throughout these playoffs. Colton Sissons, Pontus Aberg, and Frederick Gaudreau all took on larger roles as the postseason wore on. Sissons eventually found himself squaring off against Sidney Crosby as the team’s number-one center. Gaudreau proved to be a pest, slotting perfectly into an energy role on the team’s fourth line.
Aberg found himself playing on the top line with Sissons and Filip Forsberg. He scored one of the playoffs’ prettiest goals, reminiscent of Viktor Arvidsson’s dazzler the year before. Aberg also just happens to be about the same age as Arvidsson. He’s slightly bigger at 5’11”, 196, and he’s a fellow Swede. The Predators would love for him to continue to follow Arvidsson’s lead and break out next year.
Kevin Fiala, who had played stretches with the Predators before, saw his ice time increase, and scored a fantastic overtime game-winner before getting injured. He should come back from the post-season ready to resume the role he found as the season.
Most important for the Predators future success is the fact that their offensive core in Forsberg, Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen is young. All three of these players are 24 years old or younger. They will be the main source of Predators scoring for years to come. With these three as mainstays, and players competing for roster spots from the minors, the Predators should feel more comfortable heading into the expansion draft.
The Defense is Elite
This playoff run helped reinforce belief in what is widely thought to be the strength of this Nashville Predators team. The defensive core of P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Roman Josi was paramount to the deep playoff run the Predators were able to make. These four took turns as the Predators top defenseman from night-to-night.
Of the 60 goals scored by the Predators throughout the playoffs, 14 were scored by defensemen, all of them from the aforementioned top-four. Defensemen also contributed 39 assists throughout the postseason. The Predators outscored their opponents 60 goals to 47 throughout the playoffs, largely thanks to their goaltending, but also due to the shut-down ability of the defense. Of note, the Penguins put up 19 of the goals against.
New to the team, Subban made his presence felt in Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues, with arguably his best performance of the playoffs. He was a pest against Pittsburgh, going back and forth with Sidney Crosby. Knowing he did not have to be “the guy” seemed to free up his game and allow him to play more responsibly at both ends of the ice.
Going forward, the Predators will look to keep this defensive top-four in place. They also already re-signed third-pair defenseman Yannick Weber for another year. They will need to avoid losing Ekholm in the expansion draft to Las Vegas. Matt Irwin is the oldest among Predators defensemen who played in the playoffs at 29, so the Predators blue-line looks solid for years to come.
David Poile is a Wizard
Predators general manager David Poile has been with the franchise from day one. He has seen the club through stretches of doubt and built up a following in a non-traditional market. Through the 18 seasons the team has been in existence, they have made the playoffs 10 times. Poile has had to build teams while spending well under the cap limit.
This year’s version of the Predators is the best he has assembled to date. Most impressive has been Poile’s willingness to move major pieces in order to improve the team. First, he moved Martin Erat to Washington for Filip Forsberg. Forsberg has scored over 30 goals the last two seasons. Last season, he traded Seth Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets for top center Ryan Johansen. And during the previous off-season, he made his biggest deal, swapping Shea Weber for P.K. Subban. Each of these three players made the team younger and faster and were among the most impactful during the playoffs.
Poile’s willingness to make trades, and his staff’s ability to draft and develop players, has made the Predators one of the most complete throughout the lineup in the league. His exploits this season earned him a fourth nomination for the NHL’s General Manager of the Year Award. He has yet to win the honor, but may be a favorite this year given his team’s success.
Nashville is a Hockey Town
After hosting the NHL All-Star Game in 2016, Nashville began to gain recognition as a great place to watch hockey. Bridgestone Arena’s proximity to downtown Nashville, filled with bars and restaurants, means the festivities surrounding the game begin early and end late. The fans gained a reputation for being loud and supporting their team through good and bad stretches of play.
Most impressive is the support the team received from the community as a whole. During Game 6 of the Final, which also fell on the weekend of the CMA Fest in Nashville drew this crowd downtown to watch the game:
Aerial view of Broadway outside of Bridgestone Arena pic.twitter.com/atxRdyZunJ
Thousands more watched from satellite locations nearby off of Broadway.
New and old fans alike who want to buy season tickets for next season may not be able to do so, as the team is faced with the decision on where to cap season ticket sales. From celebrity anthem singers, to citizens in the street, Nashville was buzzing during the playoffs. It is a town that passionately supports its team and has a lot to look forward to going into the 2017-18 season.