Friday, June 16, 2017

All Rounds Done, Part One

Just like that, it was done. The Stanley Cup Final was suddenly over and the Pittsburgh Penguins were once again the champs.

Below are some thoughts about the 2017 SCF now that it has come to an end, and rather than do one post I will do two: This one focuses on the Nashville Predators who came up short, and the next will focus on the Penguins who came up big.

The Whistle
First, let's put to bed the matter of "the whistle," since it has been subjected to vitriol not just from Predators fans but from the unfathomably large population of Pittsburgh haters that lives from coast to coast.

A minute into the second period of the decisive Game Six, with the score tied at zero, Filip Forsberg fired a shot that Matt Murray stopped. From the spot where referee Kevin Pollock was watching, Murray appeared to have also caught it. Unable to see the puck, Pollock did what refs are supposed to do when it's not in the net and they can't see it in the crease: He blew the play dead.

It's almost certain that Pollock thought Murray was holding the puck, but he wasn't. Murray was turned almost perpendicular to the goal line, and the puck landed on the other side of his frame so that his own body blocked it from Pollock's view. Nashville's Colton Sissons saw it sitting there and managed to make a move and jab it home -- but not until an instant after the whistle sounded, and thus there was no goal.

To recap: The call was in keeping with the rules and therefore was not wrong. But it still sucked, and royally so, because Pollock blew the whistle so quick. If I was reffing I would have spent more time looking for the puck before deciding I couldn't see it. I would have at least tried to get a view from another angle. However, none of that changes the fact that the call was per the rules.

Regardless, the main purpose of this segment is not to say that the call was legalistically correct; it is to point out that the call was not the reason Pittsburgh won and Nashville lost on Sunday. Pollock called the play dead with two-thirds of the game left to play, and then he and the rest of the officiating crew more than made up for it by allowing the Predators to ignore the rulebook for the rest of the night. The Predators, including sainted Pekka Rinne, committed many obvious penalties and literally were not called for even one of them.

Every single power play after Pollock's whistle (and even before it) belonged to the Preds, including a stint of 5-on-3 during the third, yet they barely generated any chances during all those golden gift-wrapped opportunities. Do I really need to point out that that is not how a champion performs when everything is on the line? A champion does what Pittsburgh did: Rise up and snuff out its opponent's chances. Hence, Pittsburgh is a champion and Nashville is not. Sounds harsh, is true.

A radio host here in Tampa who is extraordinarily knowledgeable about hockey, and who was openly rooting against the Penguins, moaned on Monday that the Preds "never recovered" from the blown-dead call. That sentiment has been echoed across the fruited plain. Here's my problem: A championship team is, by definition, a team that will not lose over one crap-luck call that happens when two-thirds of a game remains to be played -- especially when the overwhelming majority of calls throughout the game go for them rather than against them, and when they get four power plays and their opponent gets zero. Champions capitalize on at least one power play when the grail is in sight. Champions take the one crap-luck call and use it as gas to pour on their competitive fire, and as a result that fire burns so hot it scorches the earth and leads them away from defeat and straight to victory.

The '85 Bears, '99 Rams, Joe Montana 49'ers... 1980's Miami Hurricanes, 1990's Nebraska Cornhuskers, 2010 Auburn Tigers... 2002 Red Wings, Gretzky-Messier Oilers, LaFleur-Dryden Habs... Can you imagine any of those teams wilting and losing due to one shitty-but-not-wrong call not going their way? Of course not, because wilting and losing over spilled milk is the opposite of what champions do. Champions wipe up the milk and burn down the kitchen.

A team capable of getting derailed by a lone unfavorable call early in a contest is a team not capable of winning a championship -- at least not yet. I believe that even if Sissons's goal had stood, the Penguins would have found a way to win on Sunday. I suspect this series wasn't going to a seventh game no matter what, especially when you look at how the Penguins kept improving all the way from the beginning of Game One through the end of Game Six.

Which is not... take anything away from the Spring 2017 edition of the Nashville Predators. These Preds were a great group of guys supported by a great swath of fans, and they accomplished a lot and I loved watching them play. Their future is bright and they may yet get to drink from the Cup.

They and their fans should realize that before the Gretzky-Messier Oilers became the dynasty remembered for winning five Cups in seven years, they reached the SCF and got swept by a New York Islanders squad that had won the three previous Cups. Sure, the Oilers were overflowing with Hall of Fame talent in 1983, but those future Hall of Famers needed to have their asses handed to them by champions in order to learn how to become champions themselves.

The 1993-94 Red Wings had the best record in the Western Conference, but got bounced in the first round of the playoffs by bottom-seeded San Jose... The following year they had the best record in the entire NHL, only to get swept in the SCF by fifth-seeded New Jersey... And the year after that they had the best record in NHL history, yet failed to even make it to the SCF because they fell in the third round to eventual champ Colorado... It was not until the year after that, in their fourth kick at the can, that those Wings finally broke through and won it all -- and today, all anyone remembers about that era is that the Wings won back to back Cups in '97 and '98 and three Cups in the five calendar years from June '97 through June '02.

Your time may come, Nashville... or it may not, since sports are capricious... but there is more reason for you to be happy and optimistic than there is for you to be sullen and cynical, so you should seize the former mindset as you skate into next season.

Depth and youth
One of the Penguins' defining traits during their consecutive title runs has been how deep their talent runs, and how their resulting ability to get bushels of goals from anywhere on their roster makes them so hard to put away. Well, if these playoffs taught us anything, it's that the team from Music City is almost as strong in that regard.

We all knew coming in that the Preds were deep on the blue line, but most of us thought their forward depth was not remarkable, and boy did we find out we were wrong! Yes, there is the oft-cited fact that the Preds' 14 game-winning goals during the playoffs were scored by 12 different players -- but then there is the less-cited fact that 19 different Preds, including 15 forwards, scored goals for them during the playoffs (nearly equaling the all-time record of 21 players and 16 forwards, which was set three decades ago by the '87 Flyers).

Of their eight players who recorded double-digit points in the playoffs, four are under the age of 25 and the oldest (P.K. Subban) is just 28. Their three highest scorers from the regular season (Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg) are 24, 24, and 22, respectively, and all three of them were impact players during the post-season as well, as Forberg led the team with 16 playoff points and Arvidsson and Johansen finished tied for third at 13. Damn.

The depth gets even more impressive when you consider the unlikely stories of Pontus Aberg (who has the coolest name in sports) and Frederick Gaudreau... Prior to this post-season, the 23-year-old Aberg had played in only 15 NHL games and scored only one NHL goal; but then he tallied three assists and two goals in the post-season, including what was arguably this year's best playoff goal of anyone from any team, plus the game-winner in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Final... Meanwhile, prior to this post-season the 24-year-old Gaudreau had played in only nine NHL games without scoring a single goal; but then he bagged three goals in the Stanley Cup Final, including the game-winners in the only two SCF games the Preds won... I don't believe this is coincidence. I believe there is something special and infectious in the team's culture, something that infuses everyone who enters that locker room and laces up skates and pulls on a sweater emblazoned with a saber-toothed cat.

If you're on the Nashville bandwagon, you gotta be enthused by demographics like those above, for they provide ample reason to believe your team will be a competitor well into the foreseeable future.

But be that as it may.. would be unwise for the Preds and their fans to take their eye off of Father Time, for he is undefeated and lurks in the locker rooms of all teams... and he is on the prowl with a chance to take out key contributors even on this impressively young club.

No matter how much we talk bout Nashville's balanced scoring and well-oiled defensive corps, we all know that goaltender Pekka Rinne was their best player during their playoff run, and we all know they wouldn't have gotten so close to Xanadu without him playing so spectacularly. Rinne will turn 35 before Thanksgiving gets here, and while I believe he has a few more good years in him, there's no denying that he is at the age where Father Time could pounce at any time and make his skills deteriorate drastically.

Should Father Time strike Rinne, to whom will the Preds turn to protect their net? Do you really believe Juuse Saros has what it takes to deliver a title, to steal wins against contenders when the Preds' skaters are struggling to score?

Father Time is also breathing down the neck of team captain Mike Underwood Fisher, who turned 37 last week and has now logged 17 seasons in the NHL. You won't find Fisher putting up Arvidsson-like stats these days, but you will find him doing tons of other things that are vitally important for a team to contend. He is a force in the face-off circle, blocks shots, sets up teammates, and provides invaluable leadership. His steady character (he's an avowed Christian who exhibits calm in the midst of storms) affects teammates in positive ways and is the kind of thing that can make a difference in the clutch.

Fisher's contract ends at the end of this month and there is no doubt that if he plays in the NHL next year, he will once again do so for the Nashville Predators. But what if he decides to hang up his skates instead of signing a new contract? What if he does sign another contract, only to have Father Time strike in the near future and render him unable to contribute like before?

The Predators' youth is impressive and suggests they will be competitive for a long time... but their chances of winning it all will go down if Rinne and/or Fisher are no longer as effective as they have been... in fact, their chances will go way down if Rinne is the one whose effectiveness takes a big drop... and so it would behoove the Predators to keep the pedal to the metal and keep pushing to win now, rather than listen to the Sirens who sing about the promise of "the future."

In closing... were a great story, Nashville/Smashville, and you should continue to be, but the Penguins were better... and although a fine line is thinner than gossamer, it is still a line, and the difference between "almost there" and "there" is simultaneously tiny and huge... and while on the one hand that sucks, on the other hand it means you had a helluva run... you were not best-in-the-world material this spring, but you were second-best-in-the-world material, and that ain't bad.

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