Coach Barry Trotz believes the Nashville Predators underwent a transformation during the 2008-09 season.
“We were an average team for the first 45 games, and we could have stayed an average team for 82 games,” the Predators’ coach said. “We didn’t. We became a very good team.”
However, they did not become a playoff team.
Nashville’s impassioned pursuit of a fifth straight postseason appearance ended Friday night with a loss at Minnesota in the final game of the regular season. That defeat, combined with St. Louis’ victory over Columbus guaranteed the Predators would finish no better than ninth in the Western Conference.
The Predators won 20 times (with five overtime defeats) in 36 games following the All-Star break, which was equal to the number of victories they had in the 46 games prior to the break. That closing stretch included six straight wins in late February and early March, a climb in the conference standings that reached as high as sixth place, and three victories over the Detroit Red Wings in the final 20 contests capped by a come-from-behind 4-3 shootout triumph Friday at Joe Louis Arena.
“To be out of the playoffs, it’s a tough feeling,” captain Jason Arnott said. “It’s going to be a long summer. The way we fought back all season long to get into (that) position and not get in is probably more disappointing because it came down to the last game.”
Nashville struggled to score goals most of the season, which meant it worked with very little margin for error.
The Predators were one of 19 teams to win at least 40 times (Minnesota still has the chance to get there), but their 213 goals scored were at least 10 fewer than any of those others.
More than half of its victories (22) came by a single goal and through Friday’s games, only six teams had won more one-goal games. Plus, it managed to win seven times (only three teams had more) when it trailed after two periods.
“We stuck with it, and there’s a lot to be said about us playing right to the end,” Trotz said. “Really, we had a lot of excuses not to play for a real long time because it looked like a daunting task.
“We set out a plan at the All-Star break where if we could get 90 points, we felt we could get in. That would be a real tough order, but at the same time we felt if we could get it that would be a real benchmark. We just fell a little bit short.”
They lost four — all in regulation — of their last six, which was their worst stretch since the final six games before the All-Star break, and finished with 88 points.
“Today, it seems a little it surreal that you’re out,” Trotz said. “But where we were at the All-Star break and based on our situation regarding injuries and all that, I have a lot of pride in what we were able to do at the end when everyone had counted us out.”
They were without Arnott for 11 games down the stretch while he had a concussion. They finished with two of their top six scorers — Martin Erat and David Legwand — out with injuries. And they did not add any veteran talent at the trade deadline.
A total of 23 skaters played at least 10 games for Nashville in 2008-09, which was two more than the previous season.
“The heart and character on our team is indescribable,” Arnott said. “I’ve played with some great players before, but the way these guys pulled together and really worked made it a lot of fun to be around, especially down the stretch.”