It’s astonishing how fast windows of contention can open and close.
Two years ago, the Nashville Predators looked prime to rule the Western Conference for years to come. On Monday, they bowed out in game six against the Dallas Stars – the earliest playoff exit for the Predators in four years.
It would be easy to gloss over the letdown loss. After all, the Predators were the fourth higher seed to fall just this year. At press time, there was a possibility only one of eight higher seeds would advance to the second round.
That’s hockey – upsets aren’t uncommon. One hot goalie is all it takes to win a round.
Yet, something felt different about the Predators falling in six games, many of which they seemed thoroughly outplayed. It feels like the gritty group that went from the No. 8 seed to the Stanley Cup in 2017 has lost its mojo.
Sure, they won the President’s Cup last year and stole the Central Division on the last night of this season. It doesn’t negate the fact they’ve largely underachieved in each of the last two postseasons, where everybody ultimately will judge success.
The emergence of Smashville in 2017 was led by a dominating defense. PK Subban was the headliner, especially since it was the trade that brought him to Nashville which seemed to elevate the Predators into a Stanley Cup contender. But Subban was just one of four solid defensemen, joining captain Roman Josi, bearded Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm to shut down opponents.
If any of the four failed, perennial Vezina Trophy candidate Pekka Rinne would clean up the mess.
Against the Stars, Ellis and Ekholm took turns being the worst player on the ice for the Predators until game six. Subban may have taken the honor in the closeout game, getting out of position on the play where the Stars evened the score in the second period.
It would stand to reason the Predators could shake up one, or both, of their top defensive lines before next year. Rinne, already 36, won’t be around forever either, though the team already has his replacement – Juuse Saros – on roster.
Offensively, the team will have to fix a power play that was 0-for-14 in the playoffs and last in the NHL during the season. It’s a big reason the Predators aren’t playing game seven on their home ice Wednesday.
The Predators can continue to build around their still youthful top line of Ryan Johansen (26), Viktor Arvidsson (25) and Filip Forsberg (24), but something has to change.
Otherwise, the window will be locked for good.