Just to be clear: This is not a life and death decision. No one’s existence hangs in the balance.
For Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz, though, it just might be the decision of a lifetime.
The lineup choices he makes for Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinal series with the Phoenix Coyotes will be scrutinized from every angle. Many will agree. Many others will disagree.
The impact will be felt — one way or another — immediately and the effect will linger long after that.
“Honestly, I haven’t put a lot of thought into it,” he said late Thursday morning. “It’s going to have to be something that I have to think about.”
The thing about it is that he won’t know whether or not he was right until hours after he actually makes up his mind.
The contest, which begins 6:30 p.m. Friday at Bridgestone Arena, is a critical one. Nashville trails 2-1 in the series but has momentum after a 2-0 triumph on Wednesday.
The dilemma comes from the fact that that victory was the result of one of the best overall team efforts in recent weeks even though the Predators did not necessarily put their best team on the ice. Forwards, Alexander Radulov, their leading scorer this postseason, and Andrei Kostitsyn, who is tied for the team lead in goals, were held out for disciplinary reasons.
So either Trotz sticks with the group that, thus far, has delivered the lone victory of this series in the name of continuity. Or he goes back to the those two, who each appeared in the first seven games of these playoffs, based on the idea that they accepted and served their punishment and — by virtue of their overall performance, production and potential — deserve to play ahead of some others.
Regardless of what he does, if Nashville wins he will be right; if it loses he will be wrong. At least that is what the popular opinion will be.
“When things are going well you don’t like to tweak too much, but that’s not for us to decide,” defenseman and team captain Shea Weber said.
No it is not. That falls to Trotz.
The only coach in the history of the franchise, which played its first game in 1998, likely never has faced a decision quite like this one.
This is the best, most talented group of players ever assembled for this team. Part of its overall strength stems from the trade deadline acquisition of Kostitsyn and the unexpected return of Radulov after four years in Russia. Together, they provided an unprecedented injection of firepower at a critical juncture of the season.
Expectations for this postseason were higher than ever after last year, when Nashville made it out of the first round for the first time. They were heightened when the Predators cruised through this year’s first round and eliminated their long-time measuring stick, the Detroit Red Wings.
With two of the final three games of the series scheduled for the Coyotes home ice, the Predators cannot afford to come out of this contest on the brink of elimination.
“Guys played well [Wednesday],” Radulov said. “I want to play, but it’s not like I go and ask for it. Whatever happens [Friday], happens. We just have to make sure we’re ready for the game.
“… It’s up to the coaches. I can’t control that.”
Trotz said he would seek the counsel of key players, his assistants and others within the organization. He expressed satisfaction with how the two players in question handled the discipline even as he acknowledged how well the team played without them.
In the end, though, he is the one who will make the decision and — eventually — answer for it.
“We’ll make a decision as a group,” he said. “I know it is going to be very tough if I do anything [different from Wednesday]. I thought everyone was pretty committed. … The guys that were in got the job done and they played very hard.
“It would be very difficult for me to give you an exact lineup for [Friday].”
Before long, that’s exactly what he must do.