Sunday, 24 April 2011

Finally... The Second Round!

The title of this article may sound like I'm mocking the Nashville Predators, but I'm actually very excited for this team because the Predators needed this win for themselves and their fans. I'm not saying that they were the most deserving team of a berth in the second round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, but they outworked the Anaheim Ducks and got some timely goals from their players. Those two factors, far and away, helped the Nashville Predators beat the Anaheim Ducks for their first playoff series win in franchise history.

If anything, the fans in Nashville have been loyal for the most part when it comes to supporting the Predators. They turn out in droves for playoff hockey, even if some of those attending may not know all the rules. But they are there, cheering on their team, giving them as support as any fan can give. If there was anyone who deserved this win, the fans are those who did.

As I sit here with my Shea Weber jersey on, there were a number of inspiring performances in this series from the Predators. Steve Sullivan, David Legwand, Shea Weber, and Ryan Suter are still the "go-to" stars, but how about the performance of Jordin Tootoo in this series?

If you haven't heard the story, Tootoo voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program on December 27, 2010 to combat an alcohol problem. Just over one month later, Tootoo was moved to the follow-up care phase of the program, and he returned to the Predators to continue his career. However, he wasn't cleared to resume playing with the Predators for another month. With his battle seemingly behind him, Tootoo came back to the lineup, but seemingly was more reserved than his "wrecking ball" reputation.

"With the support I've gotten from my teammates, my family, the fans of Nashville, it has been unbelievable," Tootoo told The Associated Press. "Without their support, I probably couldn't have done it, I think bottom line is it's something I needed to do and at the same time, I'm just happy to be back and thankful.

"I'm just going to take it one day at a time. Right now I'm just living in the moment and enjoying every bit of it. I can't tell you how far down. I'm just going to live in the moment right now."

While Tootoo's play on the ice was good enough to keep him in the line-up over the next season, it was nothing like what we saw in the six games against Anaheim Ducks. Tootoo finished the series with one goal and four assists - one point behind Predators' leading-scorer Mike Fisher. After posting 18 points in just 54 games, who would have thought that the physical player had it in him?

Captain Shea Weber didn't at first, but he believes in Tootoo's talent.

"Wouldn't be my first pick, but the way he's been playing the second half of the year, I wouldn't question someone if they told me that," Weber said. "I mean, he's been so great since he's come back to us. I'm really happy for him. He's a new person. He's playing well and hopefully he continues to do so."

I had the opportunity to watch Jordin Tootoo when he played with the OCN Blizzard in the MJHL where he was voted as Rookie of the Year and received Scholastic Player of the Year honours. His one season in 1998-99 was impressive as he scored 16 goals, added 21 assists, but spent a whopping 251 minutes in the penalty box that season. There was no doubt that Tootoo had an incredible talent for hockey in watching him, and his move to the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings was a no-brainer.

In watching him in Game Five, his set-up of Jerred Smithson's overtime goal looked very reminiscent of his play while with the OCN Blizzard as all three Ducks defenders stood and watched Tootoo thread the needle to the breaking Smithson in the slot. Take a look:

That's exactly the kind of attention he got as a major junior player with his talent, and that talent shone through in Game Five as he helped Nashville take a 3-2 lead in the series.

Jump ahead to tonight where Tootoo was key in sending the Ducks home with his speed and nose for the net. As Tootoo breaks down the wing, it was eerily similar to how he played as a major junior player: straight-ahead at full-speed.
While he didn't score, there were many times in the MJHL where he broke in hard across the blueline, put his head down, and barreled towards the net. More often than not, he would come away with a point as he either scored or had someone clean up the rebound like Nick Spaling did tonight. Again, this is Jordin Tootoo at his finest, and it is great to see the Tootoo Train back to his old ways.

"Obviously, it's great to contribute offensively," Tootoo said to's John Manasso. "For me, I think the game slowed down just a tad bit and, you know, I'm able to make those plays and my linemates are finding those open areas to create chances and we’ve been pretty fortunate here. Part of our line, we talk about communicating and doing the simple things and I think that's what makes us successful.

"Part of my game is driving hard to the net and dropping the shoulder and going hard and creating those second and third changes. And Spals, obviously, got the rebound there on the game-winner. When you drive hard to the net, good things happen."

Indeed, Mr. Tootoo. It's great to see you back to your old form!

One of the other men that should be credited with this win who didn't play one shift in this whole series? Head coach Barry Trotz. The 13-year head coach of the Predators has certainly done yeoman's work as the only head coach in franchise history, and his work really needs to be recognized. While it's not to say that the Predators haven't had talent - Kariya, Forsberg, Vokoun, Timonen - it does say a lot about Trotz in that this year's version of the Predators is balanced from top to bottom, and has their first playoff series victory in the team's history.

"We've been disappointed in the playoffs a few times," Trotz told Michael Traikos of the National Post. "Now we've taken another step in winning a series. I always tell our players, if it comes easy, you probably don't appreciate it a whole lot. And it's been hard for us and I think the fans really appreciate it."

Speaking about those fans, Trotz has seen the growth of the game in Nashville. From his perspective, hockey has a home in "Smashville".

"The city's abuzz," the Dauphin, Manitoba native said. "Our whole subdivision has these blue-and-gold ribbons and people have hung decoys from their mailboxes. I took my youngest to school this morning and all the kids are dressed up in Predators garb. It's a big deal in town. It really is. I think we're sold out already for next game.

"We've had 20 sell-outs this year. I know in Canada it sort of gets skewed a little bit. But we're building one fan at a time. Right now, people have embraced the hockey culture. They love it."

With the way this team is playing, it's hard not to love what thy bring to the ice each and every game - hard work, dogged determination, and pure joy when they score. The fans have had thirteen seasons of ups and downs that have included some painful playoff losses.

Ride the wave, Nashville fans. There will be ups and downs in every season, but you've got a good thing going in Nashville right now. From the play of Jordin Tootoo to the coaching of Barry Trotz, the Music City is a great place for cultivating a dream.

The dream of a Stanley Cup may not be far off.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Peter Santellan said...

As much as I deride Nashville for playing an uninteresting style of hockey and the lack of fans attending during the regular season games, it is heartening to see the Preds finally make it out of the first round. They've always given 100 percent no matter who's on the ice, and if they can find that one person to be the true face of the franchise, they could sell the game to Nashville much in the same way Brett Hull did for St. Louis or Mike Modano did for Dallas.

J. James said...

I would really love to see Nashville move on. I love the canucks, but for some reason Nashville has a soft spot in my heart. Could be that I am goalie and Pekka Rinne is a man amongst men.

I bloged about my thoughts on the second round:

If you want to delete my blog, that is cool.