Desperate and inspired, the Nashville Predators are fighting hard against change | Estes
Did you see this coming from these Nashville Predators? Be honest now.
I'll confess that I sure didn’t.
Tuesday night’s thrilling 3-2 overtime victory at the Dallas Stars made six in a row for a team that barely resembles the one we had been watching. There’s palpable desperation to all this, and it suits a team that has mostly been sleepwalking this season but won't be confused for a sleeping NHL giant.
This has been difficult. Players are fighting heroically. Not just for the sake of a playoff spot but for the direction of a franchise teetering on reconstruction. They all know what happens if they lose, just like they're counting on each victory making it less likely that general manager David Poile will go through with it.
It’s been admirable, truly, as much as it has been surprising.
For much of this Preds season and the one before it, this wasn’t necessarily a bad hockey team. It was an uninspired team. Too often going through the motions, habitually starting games slowly, passively allowing an opponent to get a lead and dictate.
It’s one thing to question a team’s talent level. It’s another to doubt its heart.
A humbling lesson these Preds have gradually had to learn is they aren’t talented enough to coast and still win. Maybe they could at times in recent years, but they can’t now. They don’t score enough, for one, which means nothing comes easy.
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Wins have got to be scratched out like Tuesday – ugly, gritty, scoring only once in the first two periods, rallying to tie and force overtime against a rival.
“Not flinching,” said coach John Hynes. "It's a big step for our group. The fact that you have that intense of a game and things don't always go your way all that time, but we stayed with it and guys got rewarded for it and found a way to win."
The current run has featured exemplary goaltending. That’s a must for this team, and they’ve been getting it lately from Juuse Saros and Pekka Rinne.
It also speaks to the growing impact of younger players like Eeli Tolvanen and Alexandre Carrier, covering for key injuries that haven’t deterred what is happening.
But more than anything, it has been about survival.
The threat of a rebuild – veterans being moved before the trading deadline – looms heavy on these Preds. They got close to a Stanley Cup not that long ago. Since those 2017 playoffs, they’ve believed the pieces were in place. That’s why players have lobbied to keep the core of that team intact. Poile, for the most part, has obliged.
Of the 19 players who saw ice time in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, eight – or 42.1% – are still on the team. That may not sound like a lot, but compare it to the Tennessee Titans that reached the NFL’s divisional round in early 2018. Only five players – or 20.8% – remain from the Titans’ 24 starters (counting kicker and punter) in a playoff loss at New England.
"We've been together a long time as a core,” said Preds captain Roman Josi, one of the eight. “I have a lot of belief in this core. You never want to see a guy leave with a trade. ... I love our core. We've been through a lot together."
Trading Mattias Ekholm wouldn’t just be another move. He, too, is one of the eight. His exit would herald more moves like it – and the end of this Preds era. For veteran players, that would be defeat. They'd have to concede this group couldn’t do it after all.
Evidently, they aren’t ready to do that yet.
If Poile’s finger on the trade switch is what it took to ignite a fire just before it was too late, then so be it. The Preds’ renewed and relentless tenacity is making a difference. It was a missing piece, exactly what Hynes has been stressing all along.
Hynes has caught criticism this season, as a coach will when his team appears unmotivated. But to the coach's credit, he has always seemed to understand the limitations of this team and buttons that needed pushing, that success – if it happened –would be more about toughness than tactics.
"From success comes more buy-in and more commitment to doing what you need to do and how we need to win as a team,” Hynes said. “Every team has an identity. It took us a little bit longer than maybe we would all have liked to get to the identity that we want.
“But now we have it.”
Reach Gentry Estes at email@example.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.