The Nashville Predators are dead. The NHL's Presidents' Trophy winners and reigning Western Conference champs were eliminated in the second round of this year's playoff bracket, dropping a Game 7 against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night in Nashville.
Many had Nashville as a Cup favorite heading into the postseason but knew they'd likely have to go through a very tough Jets team in the process. It didn't happen, and now the Preds are left to examine what they need to put them over the top in their pursuit of a title.
Let's take a look at where things went wrong for the Predators this year.
Pekka Rinne's inconsistency
You likely knew we'd have to start here, and let's just get this out of the way: Pekka Rinne is a very good goaltender. He might win the Vezina this year, and he's a major contributor to their success.
But over Nashville's last two playoff runs, Rinne has also been a major contributor to their failures -- maybe the single-biggest contributor.
In this series, Rinne was wildly inconsistent between the pipes. He was good at points – including a 34-save shutout in a potential elimination Game 6 – but boy, oh boy, was he also very bad.
Rinne finished the series with a .900 save percentage -- a steep dip from the .927 he posted in the regular season -- and was pulled three separate times in the series, each coming at home, including in Game 7.
He only lasted less than 11 minutes in that do-or-die Game 7, giving up two goals on seven shots. Those goals looked like this.
Giving up goals like that would be tough to swallow in any situation, but it's especially tough to swallow when they come early in a Game 7, take the air out of your home building and force your team to chase the game. And when they're allowed by a Vezina-caliber goaltender.
You win as a team and you lose as a team, and the Preds had nearly 50 minutes to climb out of that hole and they didn't get the job done. But giving two freebies to a team as talented as the Jets can be a death sentence. Had Rinne been good -- just good, not even great -- in this series, the outcome could have been significantly different.
Rinne's inconsistency isn't a new issue, either. After being a force for much of the playoffs last year, he turned in three separate poor performances in the Stanley Cup Final -- including terrible showings in Game 1 and 2 that dug the Preds an early hole.
While I think it's fair to say that Rinne is one of the biggest reasons the Predators have been in contention the past two years, I also think it's fair to say he's also one of the biggest reasons they haven't been able to seal the deal.
Nashville's lack of secondary contributions
The Predators scored 19 goals in this series, and 13 of them came from guys on Nashville's top line forwards and P.K. Subban. That top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson had 25 points between them. The rest of the Predators roster had 23.
That is way too top-heavy.
Forward depth was an issue that Nashville wanted to address after last year's playoff run, and they looked to do it with the addition of guys like Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino, Ryan Hartman, Mike Fisher, and a healthy Kevin Fiala.
But none of those guys managed to tally more than two points in this series.
The lack of production from Turris, who finished the playoffs without a goal, should be especially worrisome considering Nashville unloaded assets to acquire him midseason and immediately signed him to a six-year, $36 million contract extension that hasn't even kicked in yet.
The disappointing showing from Turris and his second line was a tough dose of poison, especially when you look at what the Jets were able to accomplish with their own second line, which was also bolstered with a midseason acquisition at center. Paul Stastny had five goals and 10 points in the series.
But it wasn't just the secondary forwards who had disappointing numbers either. The Preds' defensive pairing of Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, who combined for 23 goals and 85 points during the regular season (despite Ellis missing half the year), registered zero goals and two assists apiece.
It's tough to win a matchup as tight as this one when the majority of your production is coming from one line and the power play.
The defense came up short
Nashville's calling card over the past few years has been their prowess on the blue line. They've got an excellent top four consisting of P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis. That's as good as you'll find in the NHL.
Unfortunately for the Predators, they weren't at their best during this series.
We knew that defensive group would have its hands full trying to suppress the Jets' talented and relentless attack, and at times they were able to do it quite effectively. There were impressive stretches in which they were able to keep Winnipeg pressure away from the front of the net and force turnovers in the neutral zone.
But the Jets also made them look quite bad at times. Winnipeg's pressure, skill and adjustments often left Nashville's defense looking lost. They gave away possession, they stood around and watched the puck, and they allowed too much space to the Jets' best players. As you'd imagine, those Jets stars pounced on the extra room and opportunities they were given.
Again, credit goes to Winnipeg to applying pressure and converting where they could, but I think it's fair to say that Nashville wasn't consistently tight and suffocating enough in this series.
Subban finished the series at a minus-6, Ekholm a minus-5, Josi a minus-4, and Ellis a minus-3.
The Preds' shutdown forward trio of Nick Bonino, Colton Sisson and Austin Watson also had a rough go of things in this series. After doing a commendable job against Colorado's top line in the first round, Bonino's line was thoroughly roughed up in the second round. Bonino finished at a team-worst minus-8.
The Jets' insane top six
At one point during Game 7, NBC's Pierre McGuire said that Mark Scheifele was "the best known player that nobody really knows." I'm not really sure what the hell that means, but I'm pretty sure it's not true.
Anybody who pays attention has a pretty good idea of how good the Jets' top line center is. He's been a point-per-game player in each of the past two seasons, and he was lethal in this series as well.
Scheifele led all Jets forwards in ice time and scored a series-high seven goals, all of them coming on the road -- a new NHL playoff record. But he certainly didn't do it on his own.
The Jets have the most offensively gifted top six in the league, and they showed up in a big way. Blake Wheeler (11 points) and rookie Kyle Connor (six points) added two goals apiece alongside Scheifele and they all finished at a plus-4.
Had you told me that Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, who combined for 73 goals during the regular season, would find the back of the net just once in this series, I'd probably say that was terrible news for Winnipeg -- possibly even a death sentence.
But we've already covered what Paul Stastny was able to contribute offensively, and he was able to bring a finishing presence down the middle between those two guys. That's exactly why they made an effort to improve in that spot at the trade deadline, and Winnipeg has to be feeling pretty good about that move right about now. (The same can be said about Stastny and the decision to waive his no-trade clause.)
The Jets got some bonus contributions from their depth guys -- Brandon Tanev found the back of the net three times -- but the front-six did most of the heavy lifting, and their ability to spread out the offense more than Nashville was a major contributing factor to coming out on top.
Do you believe in curses?
This one's for you fans of the supernatural.
Only twice in the last 10 years has a team that captured the Presidents' Trophy as regular season champions gone on to win the Stanley Cup. Four of the last five winners have been eliminated in the second round, including this year's Predators.
Coincidence?! You tell me, folks.
In all honesty, I don't really believe in the curse, and I think the Presidents' Trophy is still an honorable accomplishment. The regular season is a grind and anytime you finish as the best in the league, you've done something pretty special.
But once the postseason gets underway, a reset button is hit and each team has a completely new season in front of them. While the Predators' run didn't last nearly as long as they would've hoped, it's difficult to say it was a disappointment. They ran into a Winnipeg team that is every bit the powerhouse that Nashville is, and the Jets are a team that's capable of lifting the Cup next month. I'm sure that's not much of a consolation, but there's no shame in being bounced by a team that good.
It came down to one game, and the Jets were ultimately better when they needed to be.