Skating by faith

Sunday, May 2, 2010 at 11:45pm
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“Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.” –St. Augustine

Another first-round playoff exit did nothing to shake coach Barry Trotz’s faith that the Nashville Predators eventually will contend for a Stanley Cup.

Even in the moments immediately following last week’s 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series, the only coach in franchise history pointed beyond the outcome to factors he believes signaled progress during the 2009-10 regular season and playoffs.

When the vast majority of the National Hockey League community looks at Nashville, though, it still sees a competent collection of players who give an honest effort most every night but who offer no real promise of playoff success. Hindered by the limitations of a small market, it is not likely to be a preferred destination for premium free agents or even a long-term locale for top talent in its prime.

Nothing that happened in this postseason, including the Predators’ first playoff road win or a 2-1 series lead for the first time ever, likely did anything to change that perception. After all, the Preds remained winless all-time when facing elimination (0-5) and failed for the fifth time in as many tries to extend a first-round series to the full seven games.

“We’ll always be that team,” forward Steve Sullivan said. “It’s just part of the market. You have to get out of the first round for it to kind of shake. You have to do more than just get in [the playoffs]. I think that’s what people expect. ‘You might get in, you might not get in.’ ”

The question is: Are the Predators what they believe, or are they what others see?

Regular season riders

Trotz’s faith in future achievement is rooted largely in the regular season.

Nashville is, after all, one of only five teams to win at least 40 games in every season since the 2003-04 lockout and one of just four Western Conference teams to make the playoffs five times in the last six seasons.

“We came into this series not feeling like underdogs, and that was a step up for us,” Trotz said. “We went in and won a road playoff game, which starts getting in your head a little bit if you haven’t had success, and we should have gotten two wins on the road.

“… This group got 100 points. They were resilient. When people were out, they found ways to win and ways to get points.”

But points in the regular season and wins in the playoffs are two different things.

Exactly 20 percent of Nashville’s 100 regular-season points came in games during which they did not actually outscore the opposition. They won seven times in shootouts, good for 14 points in the standings. They also lost six times either in overtime or a shootout, which was worth another six points.

This year’s team did win a playoff game on the road after having gone 0-10 in four previous postseason appearances. It also scored 15 goals in the playoffs, one more than its previous high — despite the fact that it was shut out twice.

Yet it lost the one time it was extended beyond regulation. That, of course, was Game 5, when it surrendered the tying goal with 13.4 seconds to play in regulation. The franchise’s all-time record in overtime playoff games fell to 0-3. 

Not even that — arguably the most heartbreaking defeat the franchise ever has endured — was enough to shake his faith in what the 2009-10 Predators accomplished, or the possibility that his faith eventually will be rewarded.

“Somebody asked me about all the teams that we’ve had and that have been in the playoffs — we had different growth patterns, and different degrees of talent and different degrees of talent and character,” Trotz said. “The room this year was a real special room. I can tell you I would play with this team against any other team that we’ve had so far. It had more character, it had more will, it had a lot of the elements you want that are going to take us to the next level.”

In reality, not many people will share his view. Most will look at the first-round exit and say this Predators team was no different than any that preceded it.