Nashville Predators failed to live up to expectations

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The Nashville Predators had it all… until they didn’t.

Coming into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Predators seemingly had laid the groundwork for a redemption campaign that would see them travel to the Stanley Cup Final again, and maybe even snag the hardware this time.

They owned the best record in the regular season, possessed the soon-to-be Vezina Trophy winner and trotted out the best defensive corps in the NHL in the opinion of many.

They had the experience. They had tasted the cruelty of losing at the last possible juncture. You have to lose before you can win, right? At least according to sports’ book of unwritten rules.

Nashville had a deep team, capable of scoring, defending and stopping goals — a team bred for success and with a roster chalk full of resumes to back it up — and better than nearly anyone.

Nearly.

Nearly, because on Thursday night the Predators’ season, with all of its expectations, the hopes and dreams and everything they’d learned from a year ago, ceased to exist.

A 5-1 loss in Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round meant Nashville wouldn’t reach the Final. There would be no redemption. Only questions, tears and hopes vanished.

The first finger to be wagged in a particular direction starts in the crease.

Pekka Rinne‘s Vezina-caliber regular season got lost as Nashville traveled into the playoffs and never really found its way back.

“I feel very much responsible for our season ending at this point,” Rinne said on Thursday after allowing two first-period goals and getting pulled in record-time just 10:47 into the opening frame. “Tough to swallow, tough to understand. I can’t point out anything. Felt good, and no injuries and totally healthy. But total ups and downs throughout the playoffs. The biggest moment of the season, it’s a terrible feeling. You let your teammates down, and that’s what happened tonight. That’s tough to swallow.”

Rinne, 35 and scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after next season, struggled mightily at times and was on mediocre (save for Game 6) at others.

At Bridgestone Arena, where Nashville had been so good during the regular campaign, Rinne was at his worst, losing three of our in the series — pulled twice (and three times total) — and posting a horrendous .848 save percentage.

Fingers pointed squarely at Rinne alone would be crass, as P.K. Subban adequately pointed out after the game.

“Critics who want to criticize (Rinne) don’t know what they’re talking about,” Subban said as he vehemently defended his goaltender. “I don’t care if they played in the NHL or not. He’s the backbone of our hockey club. He’s one of the main reasons why we’re here. Could we all have been better tonight? Yeah. We didn’t do enough. I felt at times that they had their whole team going; we didn’t. I mean, it comes down to that. I think everybody could have played a lot better, could’ve given more. I’m sick and tired of people always talking about (Rinne).

“He’s the backbone of this team. He’s the reason we’re here. When you talk about top goaltenders in the League, it’s him, it’s (Montreal Canadiens’ Carey) Price, it’s (Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei) Vasilevskiy, it’s (Winnipeg Jets’ Connor) Hellebuyck. It’s these guys. You’re lucky to have one of them. We have to look at this as a team and get better as a team. Like I said, we have a lot of time to think about it, rest and recover and be ready to win a championship next year.”

If they do, their whole team will need to show up. Consistently. Like Subban said, the 18 skaters in front of Rinne didn’t hold up their end of the bargain either.

While Winnipeg’s top line showed up in the series — the trio of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor combined for 28 points over the series’ seven games — Nashville’s best showed up in spurts, and spurts don’t win series.

“Yeah I mean, it’s a dangerous group over there, you know?” defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “They won for a reason, they’ve got a lot of dangerous players, guys that got 40 goals and 90 points or whatever. So we have to be, as a group, responsible defensively as well as offensively. I mean, Game 7. It’s that close of a (series).”

It was.

But Nashville met its match.

The team came into the playoffs with 117 points in the regular season and a Presidents’ Trophy to show for their efforts. None of that matters though, its place now is only for context when talking about how and why it all went wrong.

In a nutshell, Nashville’s vaunted defense had no answer for Winnipeg’s rocket-fuelled offense. Nashville’s immovable object moved. The team that allowed the second-fewest goals in the regular season allowed the Jets to come into their barn and drop 19 on them to tie an NHL record. When the onslaught began, there was simply no answer to the unstoppable force.

And so it ended.

Predators head coach Peter Laviolette, now 5-3 in Game 7s as a bench boss, didn’t need many words when he offered a simple truth after the game.

“We ran into a good team, and they’re moving on.”

Indeed.

MORE:
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2018: Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.