Monday, June 12, 2017
Appreciate later, stew now: Predators' season ends in brutal fashion
Joe Rexrode , USA TODAY NETWORK -- Tennessee
June 11, 2017
Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins makes a save as Trevor Daley #6 defends Filip Forsberg #9 of the Nashville Predators during the second period in Game Six of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Every previous Predators season has ended weeks or months short of the culmination of the NHL season, the golf clubs out of garages and put to use long before the Stanley Cup came out of its box in some far-away arena.
On Sunday night, it was in Bridgestone Arena, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it. But this probably isn’t the time for that, not now, not after it appeared in the most painful of circumstances for the Predators and their fans. Not with Sidney Crosby lifting it above his head after leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to a championship-clinching 2-0 win over the Predators in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Not after the way it all went down, a ridiculous officiating error costing the Predators a 1-0 lead early in the second period. The official first goal came 37 minutes later, the game winner from former Predator Patric Hornqvist with 1:35 to play.
A wacky bounce, a shot off the back of Pekka Rinne and that was it – an empty netter for Carl Hagelin followed, then a wild pile-up on the ice for the guys in the white uniforms when the horn blew. It was numbness everywhere else in the building. The Stanley Cup stays with Pittsburgh, the NHL’s first repeat champion since the Detroit Red Wings of 1997 and ’98.
"It just feels wrong right now – it's tough to accept," said Rinne, who put in a night of work that normally would have produced a convincing win.
“It’s hard to describe," Predators defenseman P.K. Subban said of the feeling afterward. "When you dream about lifting the Stanley Cup as a young kid – and the dream’s happened probably about a million times for most of us – being that close, being two games away, 120 minutes away from lifting the Stanley Cup, it sucks."
The Predators almost had it. They were as banged up as they’ve been in this two-month run but fought anyway, determined to send this all the way to the end – a Game 7 on Wednesday in Pittsburgh – and got brilliance from Rinne and guts from so many others. Ryan Ellis played after an injury knocked him out of Game 5, even though he was as ginger as his flowing beard. Predators coach Peter Laviolette deemed Ellis' injury "pretty serious" and called his performance "really courageous."
The Predators thought they led after Filip Forsberg shot on Matt Murray and Colton Sissons poked in the easy rebound, but official Kevin Pollock lost track of the puck and blew a premature whistle. No goal. No review allowed. Nothing but boos in the air. Then silence when Pittsburgh finally took advantage – shortly after 32 seconds of a two-man advantage yielded nothing for the Predators.
To their credit, the Predators didn't complain much about the call, though Laviolette admitted it made the loss more difficult. Losing at home, on a goal like that, couldn't have softened the blow.
Just as the Penguins did in their previous four championship seasons, they clinched in the opponent’s rink, and this rink had enjoyed Predators wins in 13 of their previous 14 playoff games there. That includes nine of 10 this year, and it includes wins of 5-1 and 4-1 over the Penguins in Games 3 and 4. But Murray owned it this time. He was tremendous.
I could sit here and tell you to be proud of the Predators, that they went down in a classic battle on the ice. I could tell you to remember that most of the free, hockey-loving world gave the Predators no chance to beat the Stanley Cup favorite Chicago Blackhawks in the first round before the Predators swept the Blackhawks.
I could remind you that surging standout forward Kevin Fiala was lost in Game 1 of the second-round over St. Louis, and that much of the same free, hockey-loving world said Ryan Johansen’s season-ending injury in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against Anaheim was a death blow to this team’s Cup chances. I sure did. But look at how close the Predators got.
Or don’t. Not now. I get it.
This is not the time to reflect on Rinne’s greatness during this run. It can’t be easy right now to remember the two-way brilliance of the best defensive corps in the league, or all the clutch plays Forsberg and others made, or all the names barely uttered during the regular season that became postseason buzzwords – Gaudreau, Zolnierczyk, Fiddler, McLeod, Sissons.
It’s hard to get those visions back when you have to lament two huge Predators goals disallowed in this series, and with Cup-hoisting Crosby on the brain, right? He and the Penguins took this series over late to become the NHL’s first back-to-back champs of the salary cap era.
The Penguins took advantage of the Johansen void up the middle more and more as the series progressed – and please don’t take that as an excuse. Pittsburgh would have been better with top defenseman Kris Letang and center Nick Bonino. Injuries happen along this grueling ride, and champions overcome them.
I would argue that the Predators did the same at a championship level. But that’s no solace, especially for folks such as 34-year-old Rinne and 37-year-old captain Mike Fisher who know especially well how hard it is to get here.
They know they might not get back, too. And they got so close to finishing this. That’s why perspective has its limitations right now.
Rinne did his best to find it in a quiet locker room, and he was classy like always, reminding us that officials are humans, too. But then he started talking about the opportunity lost, and the tears welled up in his eyes, and the gravity of his defeat was unavoidable in that room. He called it "an empty feeling."
“I don’t want to sound selfish, but to me, I was treating it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Rinne said. "You never know when you’re going to get another opportunity. The only thing I was thinking about was that Cup. Dreaming about that, playing for that. So right now it’s tough to accept and tough to handle.”
Yeah, the Predators are built for more runs. But if there was any way to know for sure they’ll make one in some future, magical spring, this wouldn’t mean what it obviously does to so many people.
Reach Joe Rexrode at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.