For the Nashville Predators, it’s tough not to think about what could have been.
They scored what should have been the opening goal of Game 6, only to have it disallowed due to the quick whistle of referee Kevin Pollock. The winning goal, scored by Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist, came on a fortunate bounce with less than two minutes remaining in the third period.
Had Pollock waited half a second before blowing his whistle, or had Justin Schultz’s point not rolled perfectly up the back of the net, perhaps Nashville would be preparing for Game 7 instead of watching the Penguins hoist another Stanley Cup following their 2-0 victory on Sunday.
But that’s not how this works, an unfortunate reality these Predators will never forget.
“The dream’s probably happened a million times for most of us. Being that close, being two games away, 120 minutes away from lifting the Stanley Cup, it sucks,” said P.K. Subban.
“This isn’t fun, to come all this way, play an extra two months for really nothing. I think that’s probably a good way to look at it,” offered Ryan Ellis.
Despite the immediate and bitter disappointment, this feels more like the beginning than the end for the Predators.
They made it to the final as the No. 16 seed by sweeping the Cup-favorite Blackhawks, beating Blues in six games and closing out the battle-tested Ducks despite missing their No. 1 center.
The Predators are also a young team. Their top-four on defense are all in their prime, with Subban the elder statesman at 28. Up front, Filip Forsberg is only 22, while Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson are 24. Pekka Rinne, 34, showed he still has some good hockey left and Nashville’s salary cap picture looks manageable for the foreseeable future.
It’s not hard to imagine the Predators being a Stanley Cup threat for years to come.
“We have such a young team, I think we gained a ton of experience from this run and like I said, we have guys who haven’t played many games in the NHL, let alone Stanley Cup Playoff games, they stepped in and did such a good job,” said Subban.
“I think that our hockey club put this team together, at the start of the season there was a lot of talk about our team in the long term with such young players, but we’ve proven that we’re a team that can compete now and win now.”
The future looks bright for the Predators, but the Stanley Cup — like any professional sports trophy — is evasive and immense potential doesn’t guarantee future glory. For some players, like veteran captain Mike Fisher, this could be their final chance, for others their only chance.
“Personally I feel like – I don’t want to sound selfish but I was treating this as a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Rinne. “You never know when you’re going to get another opportunity.”
Predators coach Peter Laviolette knows a thing or two about that, having been on both sides of a Stanley Cup celebration. He won it all in his first full season as coach of the Hurricanes in 2006, then missed the playoffs the following two years before being fired. Laviolette made it back to the final in 2010 after taking over behind the bench in Philadelphia midway through the season, ultimately falling to the Blackhawks. Seven years later he made his way back with the Predators, becoming just the fourth coach in NHL history to lead three teams to the Cup Final. But he once again came up short of the ultimate goal.
“We hate the result, but our guys gave a pretty good effort, and it’s difficult for us right now because our sights were set on winning the championship, like anybody would be when you get to this point, and for that, it’s disappointing,” said Laviolette.
Perspective is always important in the wake of a season-ending loss, especially one of this magnitude, and Laviolette had plenty to offer on his team’s performance following Game 6.
“If we were going to take one game and only one game back, it would be Game 5 in Pittsburgh where I don’t think we played very good,” he said. “So outside of a playoff series that goes over 20 games, you have one game that you don’t like, so that talks more to the strength of our team and how we played down the stretch in the regular season and how we played through the playoffs.
“So there was definitely growth to our team, from where we started into who we became and who we are. Again, I’m really proud of the guys.”
This might have been the first time a national audience got a taste of the raucous hockey market in Nashville, but given the way this team is set up for the future it likely won’t be the last.
If Subban makes good on his latest guarantee, it won’t be a long wait.
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