By Jim Diamond
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
A year after making an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final, as the last team to qualify for the playoffs mind you, the Nashville Predators won the Presidents’ Trophy this season and looked like they had the first Stanley Cup in team history within their grasp.
The big problem was that the Winnipeg Jets pulled the rug out from under them, and in their own barn too. But as good as the Jets are, and make no mistake, the Jets are good as hell, the Predators just weren’t good enough in the second-round series that ended Thursday night.
Pekka Rinne let in two horrible goals in the first period prior to being yanked, for the third time in the series, in favor of fellow Finn Juuse Saros. The Kyle Turris line was awful for almost of the entirety of the playoffs. Turris, along with wingers Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala combined for five goals in 13 playoff games. And the defense, long the headline-grabbers of the team, had trouble handling the size and speed of the Winnipeg forwards and didn’t contribute a whole lot of offense either.
But in Game 7, Rinne, who will likely win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top regular season goaltender, couldn’t deny two very stoppable first period shots; one Tyler Myers tough-angle shot that somehow squeaked in between his skate and the left post and then Paul Stastny’s backhander that he harmlessly flipped over his shoulder put Nashville down 2-0 a little more than halfway through the opening period.
Following the game, Rinne was as downtrodden as one could imagine.
“I obviously feel very much responsible for our season ending at this point,” he said. “Tough… tough to swallow, tough to understand. I can’t point on anything. I felt good, no injuries, totally healthy, and total ups and downs throughout the playoffs. Obviously, the biggest moment of the season, it’s a terrible feeling you let your teammates down and that’s what happened tonight. It’s tough to swallow.”
Predictably, his teammates were there to try and take the heat off of him.
“He didn’t let us down,” captain Roman Josi said. “He’s been our best player all year. He’s been unbelievable all year. He’s an unbelievable leader all year. He’s our rock and our best player.”
P.K. Subban went one better, “Listen to me, anyone who wants to criticize, critics who want to criticize him, don’t know what they’re talking about,” Subban said. “I don’t care if they’ve played in the NHL or not. He’s the backbone of our hockey club and he’s one of the main reasons we’re here.”
Whether you know anything about hockey or not, Rinne needed to be better. It’s not a criticism, but a fact. Your backbone can’t get pulled three times in a seven-game series and expect to win that series. His teammates needed to try and pick him up, but when you dig a two-goal hole against the tough Jets, that’s a tough ask.
It’s hard to look at Rinne’s sullen mood and think that it was all Thursday night or all this series.
Rinne is 35 and will turn 36 early next season, the final season of his current contract. He has to feel like his biological clock is ticking much like Mona Lisa Vito’s in “My Cousin Vinny.” Juuse Saros is the future of Nashville’s goaltending crease, but most expected that transition to take place after next season. Now, the picture isn’t so clear. Heading into a contract year, what kind of workload will he be looking at in the 2018-19 season?
You can’t sluff off Rinne’s Vezina-worthy regular season, but his career postseason performances, save for the first three rounds of 2017, have been pedestrian.
They needed him to be better, and he simply wasn’t good enough. Again, neither were a lot of his teammates, but they needed more from him.
It just didn’t happen.