Looking back at the 2009-2010 season, the recurring theme running throughout the entire Nashville Predators organization is that there is unfinished business.
Following a 100 point regular season that few people outside of the team itself expected the Predators to have, another exit from the Western Conference Quarterfinal round of the National Hockey League playoffs is not sitting well with the Nashville General Manager, coaching staff, or players.
Just days after being eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks in Game Six of their playoff series, Nashville personnel still feels the sting of their fifth consecutive exit from the first round of the playoffs. But the fact that the Predators are one of just eight teams to have qualified for the playoffs five or more times in the last six seasons is a big accomplishment for a franchise still in its formative years.
One positive sign for the organization is that no one is happy with just getting to the playoffs anymore. Everyone expects more, everyone wants more, and no one will be satisfied with anything less than success in the playoffs.
“This loss to Chicago probably hurts as much as anything that we have been through,” Nashville President of Hockey Operations/General Manager David Poile said. “The good news here is that everybody here believed that we could win, I’m not so sure that was the case in some of our past playoff situations. This year there was something special there.”
Prior to the regular season’s start, preseason predictions rolled in from all over North America, most of which predicted the Predators would finish at or near the basement of the Western Conference. Two games and two wins in, there was reason for optimism with the 2-0 start. That optimism quickly faded, as the team won just one of its next eight, sinking in the standings in the process.
The Predator ship got righted quickly and likely just in time to ensure that they did not dig themselves into a hole so deep that it would be nearly impossible to get out of and compete for a playoff spot. Nashville won 11 of its next 13 games, and those wins were not just good in quantity. The quality of the opponents gave the team the confidence it needed going forward with a large percentage of the schedule still in front of them. Of the 11 wins, seven came against teams that would go on to make the playoffs this season.
“We had a kind of tough start, but we always fought our way back,” goaltender Pekka Rinne
said. “We could have folded so many times. We could have stopped playing and stopped believing so many times, but we never did. I think we have a special group of guys. There is a lot of character and a lot of great players who showed a lot of poise and a lot of commitment to this team and that is how we slowly but surely got better as the season went on and that’s a great sign.”
In his second NHL season, Rinne followed up an impressive rookie campaign with a 32-16-5 regular season in 2009-2010. The big Finn had seven shutouts, equaling the franchise record he established in 2008-2009.
One of the questions that always seems to be asked about the Predators is, Who is going to score the goals? Patric Hornqvist
became the answer to that question with his impressive 30-goal performance. And the goals Hornqvist scored were not of the easy variety. He went to the net, competed in the hard areas, and hounded for pucks that gave opposing goaltenders and defensemen fits. Nashville broadcasters Pete Weber and Terry Crisp would make nightly mentions of the number of facewashes given to Hornqvist by opponents none too happy with his intensity around the blue paint.
“It was a good year, but you feel empty right now, you want to still be playing,” Hornqvist said. “We know we have a great team and are probably going to keep a lot of guys too. I look forward to next year already, but it is four or five months away.”
After scoring just twice in his rookie season, the number of goals produced by Hornqvist this season caught a number of people by surprise, his head coach chief among them.
“Coming into the season, I don’t think that anybody thought Patric Hornqvist
would go from two goals to 30, I was one of them,” Barry Trotz said.
Not only was the offensive output a major contribution to the Nashville cause, it earned the second-year Swede a spot on his country’s Olympic team.
February’s Winter Olympics were a showcase for Hornqvist and five other Predators who competed on the world’s biggest hockey stage in Vancouver, British Columbia. Martin Erat
(Czech Republic), Marcel Goc and Alexander Sulzer (Germany), Shea Weber
(Canada), and Ryan Suter
(United States) all traded in their Predator blue for the colors of their home countries.
Suter and Weber, normally partners as Nashville’s top defensive duo, squared off against each other in the Gold Medal Game on the last day of Olympic competition. Weber skated away with gold in his hometown with the Canadians overtime victory over the Americans. Suter continued a family legacy of Olympic medals with his silver. His father Bob was a gold medalist with the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, and his uncle Gary won silver with the US in Salt Lake City in 2002.
Following the Olympic break, the Predators continued their strong play, solidifying their hold on a playoff spot with a successful month of March. March was a busy one for the Predators, playing in 17 games in the season’s second to last month. Nashville was 11-5-1 in March, with their success punctuated by a six-game winning streak March 12-21.
As a result of the season’s success, Trotz was recently named one of the three finalists for the Jack Adams Award, given annually to the NHL’s top coach.
The regular season ended with the Predators sporting a 47-29-6, good for 100 standings points and the seventh seed in the Western Conference. But the second seeded Blackhawks defeated the Predators four games to two in a series loss that does not sit well with anyone in the Predators locker room.
“We could have done something special and we came up short, so it is very disappointing,” Suter said. “Enough of the first round exits, it is not very fun. You are only as good as your last game, and we did not win our last game. You’ve got to win to be happy.”
Despite a solid regular season, Suter’s defensive partner was succinct in his assessment of what another loss in the first round of the playoffs means to the team.
“If you get satisfied with losing, something is wrong with you,” Weber said. “You are not satisfied unless you win the whole thing.”
The team will reconvene in September for training camp. Many of the faces on the ice in camp will be the same ones who were on the losing end of Game Six. By that time, the sting of the loss in the Chicago series will be somewhat dulled but still there close to the surface. That kind of memory coupled with the expectation of success will set the tone early for a team that wants to be playing well after the calendar turns to May in the spring of 2011.