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To say that all eyes will be on Nashville in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs wouldn't be an understatement. Games 3 through 7 will be nationally broadcast on the Versus network, marking the first time in team history that consecutive games will be on national TV.
Contrast that schedule with the Anaheim/Minnesota series in which none of their games will be broadcast to the U.S. market or the New Jersey/Tampa Bay series which will only be available in Canada and you will see just how far the Preds have come in a single season.
But despite all of the records and milestones set this year, the team still hasn't secured its future in this city and there will be interested parties in Kansas City and Las Vegas cheering on the Sharks to make quick work of the Preds and help them in their negotiations to relieve Nashville of its NHL franchise.
Yes, the stakes are that big. A deep playoff run will sell tickets not only for these "right to the bottom line" playoff games, but it will also directly translate into butts in seats for next season. That's liquid gold to a franchise that still struggles to sell tickets on most week nights when the opponent is not named the Red Wings.
So, with arguably the most important seven games in the Predators' history staring us right in the face, there are still a few things that cause consternation for any Preds fan. This list of five concerns is by no means complete, but I think these are the five most important issues that will determine whether we make a long run into the fortnight and never have to suffer another "Attendance is low, the Preds are moving" article or if a long Summer of discontent and uncertainty once again will await the Predators and their fans.
1.) The Tootoo Rules
The one constant since the return of Jordin Tootoo from his five game suspension two weeks ago is the undeniable fact that he's a marked man in the eyes of the NHL. He is worthy of his own linesman shadow for each and every game and every borderline physical play results in a two minute penalty for Jordin.
Unfortunately, such a microscope is precisely the worst thing that could have happened to Tootoo. His game is dependent on his physical play. Last season, Coach Trotz tried to tinker with his main weapon and it led to disastrous results for all involved. A listless Tootoo, and by extension Predators team, were easily manhandled by the Sharks last year.
Ultimately, this concern boils down to the Preds' ability to stay out of the penalty box. The first 10 minutes of the first period of game one will decide the fate on this concern. If Toots is whistled for a penalty in one of his first few shifts, it could be a short series for the Preds.
2.) Sully's Mysterious Back
Injuries and how a team responds to them in the playoffs is perhaps the most important key to a long playoff run. This team has had to deal with adversity pretty much for the last two seasons. Now, as players return, it will be interesting to see how the team responds.
Getting a Scott Hartnell and a Martin Erat back can be a good thing, but it could also be a terrible thing. Their return disrupts the chemistry of a team that has come together and gelled into a cohesive unit without them. Additionally, players just don't jump back on the ice in mid-season form. It usually takes a few games/weeks to get up to speed.
At what point is a 100% Fiddler or Smithson better than a 70% Erat?
The biggest injury storyline for the Predators will be without a question Steve Sullivan's mysterious back ailment. Sully has been out of the lineup since mid-February and while the Preds have fared remarkably well in his absence, there's no question in my mind that with a completely healthy Steve Sullivan, the Preds are top in the league, preparing to play the Flames and making space in the rafters for a President's Trophy banner.
When Sully (it's not even a question of if) attempts to play in the post-season, how will it affect this close-knit team. How will his ice time affect the play of players like Alexander Radulov who will almost undoubtedly see his ice time numbers take a hit when Sully returns?
3.) The Legacy of Coach Trotz
The fact that we can sit here and say the Nashville Predators have had only one coach in the history of their franchise is biggest compliment that we could ever pay to Barry Trotz. However, everyone knows that a coach's real worth is not measured on longevity but rather, his success in the post-season and the number of Stanley Cups raised over his head.
The Predators are at a crossroads. They have made the moves to take advantage of a short window for success. But, the one thing that they have not changed is the captain at the wheel of the ship. The pieces are in place and at some point, the inability to win a playoff series will catch up with a coach.
Coach Trotz has taken this team to new heights in each and every one of his seasons behind the bench, but the time is now for him to convert that success to the post-season. Every move and decision in the playoffs will be scrutinized over and over again by us, the glorified arm-chair quarterbacks, but the only thing that matters is winning.
4.) The Stars Shine Brightest in the Playoffs
No one remembers what Michael Jordan did in game 37 of the regular season, but they all remember his clutch shots that delivered the hardware. Wayne Gretzky had some amazing plays in the regular season, but he's most remembered for the four Stanley Cups he hoisted in Edmonton and single-handedly carrying the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals on his back in the Spring of 1993.
As opposed to last season, we are stocked with players that have elevated their game to the next level. Joining Paul Kariya this season, we have Jason Arnott who scored a Stanley Cup clinching goal, J.P. Dumont who was one win away from the Cup Finals last season and has traditionally elevated his play in the post-season and, of course, Peter Forsberg who has had the pleasure of lifting Lord Stanley's Cup over his head two different times.
This veteran leadership core needs to take over this team in the next couple of weeks and lead by example. They need to show the younger players that the playoffs is a completely different beast than the regular season and the amount of blood, sweat and tears required to persevere goes up exponentially with each passing round.
The Predators have experienced great balance in their scoring this season, but the playoffs is all about your star players getting their names on the score sheet.
5.) Goaltending, Defense Wins Championships
It's an old cliché, but one that rings as true today as the moment that the phrase was coined. Scoring goals will not be a problem for this team. Keeping the other team off the score sheet is one area that the Preds will need to focus on going into the post-season.
In net, the team is one lousy performance away from a full-blown goaltender controversy. Tomas Vokoun is the man and as such he has earned the right to start the playoffs and play until he falters. Unlike last season where the only healthy, viable option was Chris Mason, this year the Preds have two number 1 goalies in Vokoun and Mason and Coach Trotz will likely ride the hot goalie.
And ride one goalie the Predators must, because who was the last team to truly use a tandem and win the Stanley Cup? Yeah, I didn't come up with an answer either. Like it or not, the team and the defensemen, in particular, play differently in front of different goalies. So, settling on a clear choice starter could mean the difference in a close series.
Thankfully, at the other end of the rink, the Sharks find themselves in a similar situation in which Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala have both played well this season. Whoever gets their goaltender situation figured out first will probably win the series.
Both teams have question marks on the blue line. The Preds defensemen have been playing way beyond anyone's expectations all season long, but the playoffs is another beast altogether. The Sharks blue line is also very young, but a fine addition of Craig Rivet at the deadline might make all the difference.
In the end, these two teams have the most wins of any teams in the Western conference. It's a shame that they have to face each other this early, but all roads to the Stanley Cup are littered with great teams that stumbled on the path.
The Predators have a great shot at securing their first playoff series victory, but as last season showed when seeds 5-8 won their first round series in the playoffs, anything can and probably will happen.
Here's hoping that these concerns are nothing more than an afterthought come June.
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