What it will take to change the Predators' playoff fortunes

Sunday, April 10, 2011 at 10:10pm

Everyone associated with the Nashville Predators — players, coaches, front office personnel — said their sense of disappointment at last year’s playoff loss to Chicago was greater than in the wake of any of their other previous first-round failures.

They also took solace in that the Blackhawks pointed to the Predators as the most difficult obstacle on their way to the Stanley Cup championship.

Apparently, a franchise that never has progressed beyond the opening round of the NHL playoffs — or even extended a series to seven games or won when faced with elimination — measures progress in degrees of despair and comparisons of competitiveness.

There is consistency, though, in how Nashville has come up short in its five trips to the playoffs.

The goals

More often than not, offense is hard enough for the Predators to find. In the postseason, they consistently have been unable to count on their most reliable scorers to do their part.

In a remarkable trend, there were seven players who led or shared the team lead in goals during the regular season. Those seven have combined for three playoff goals in those respective seasons.

Paul Kariya had two in 2006 when he shared the regular-season lead with Steve Sullivan (zero goals), and Jason Arnott had one in 2007, when he shared the team lead with David Legwand (zero).

Last season, Patric Hornqvist followed his 30-goal performance with zero against the Blackhawks. J-P Dumont similarly came up empty against Detroit in 2008 after having scored a team-high 28 in the regular season, and Scott Walker (25 regular-season goals) failed to find the net against the Red Wings in 2004.

Perhaps the fact that this season, several different players have taken turns as the top scorer means things will be better this time. Or it means no one will stand out as a postseason disappointment.

The goalie

To a man, Nashville’s players and coaches say that Pekka Rinne is the single biggest reason the team is back in the postseason.

The Predators always have relied heavily on their goalies, but perhaps never more so than this season.

That being said, Rinne must be better in the postseason. In four of Nashville’s five playoff series, they have lost at least one game when they allowed two goals or fewer.  In other words, the margin for error is minimal — at best.

Rinne’s save percentage in last season’s six playoff contests (.911) was identical to that of the regular season, and his goals-against average (2.68) was slightly worse than that of the regular season (2.53) at a time when the best must elevate their play.

In particular, his performance waned as the series progressed — nine goals allowed on 67 shots (an .866 save percentage) in the final three games.

Given the enormous workload he shouldered down the stretch this season, Rinne’s fitness must be a cause of some concern for the team leadership at this time.

The turning point

Of all 28 playoff contests in franchise history, Game 5 of the 2010 playoff series with Chicago is the one most probably want to forget but likely never will.

A pair of third-period goals by Martin Erat gave Nashville a 4-3 lead, which stood until the Blackhawks scored shorthanded with 13.6 seconds remaining in regulation. Chicago then got the game-winner a little more than four minutes into overtime.

With that defeat, the Predators fell to 0-5 all-time in postseason Game 5s. Each of the last four was a one-goal loss and the last two of those were in overtime.

Three times Nashville has reached Game 5 with the series tied at 2-2. Each time another defeat followed in Game 6. The other two times it faced elimination in Game 5 — and was eliminated.
It seems clear that if the Predators want to advance in the postseason, they’re going to have to find a way to succeed at this most critical juncture of a seven-game series.

The big question

The Predators have made the playoffs five times in their history. Five times they have been eliminated in six games or fewer.

Why should anyone believe this year is going to be different?

“We’re a well-rounded team,” defenseman Ryan Suter says. “Everyone is in it for the right reasons. We’re playing for each other in here. There’s no egos. There’s no stars. No one gets treated any different. We have a great goalie [and] guys who can really play.

“We believe in ourselves.”