Eric Nystrom's brilliant night is a microcosm of this year's edition of the Predators 

What a Shame

What a Shame

Eric Nystrom is a Hockey Player — capital letters included.

The eight-year NHL veteran was brought in by the Nashville Predators in the offseason to add qualities the team's management thought it was lacking: the rather difficult-to-quantify (and equally deserving of the majuscule) Toughness, Leadership, Grit. Fans perhaps would have preferred if David Poile signed players who brought more pedestrian qualities, like scoring goals, an area in which Nystrom has heretofore shown little aptitude.

In 457 NHL games before last Friday's in Calgary, Nystrom had put just 53 pucks in the net. His best year came in 2011-12 when he scored 16 for the Dallas Stars. On the list of men to score the rare four-goals-in-a-game — a feat so unusual it doesn't have an agreed-upon sobriquet like its three-goal counterpart — Nystrom would be one of the unlikeliest names to appear.

But games aren't played on paper, and the unlikely isn't impossible. Nystrom entered Calgary's Scotiabank Saddledome — a building that looks exactly as one might imagine — with seven goals on the season.

He left with 11.

He scored on a broken play early, then slid a rebound of a funny bounce off the Flames' goalie's pad for his second. Teammate Paul Gaustad did most of the work for his third, slapping the puck at an odd angle toward the net and having it bounce blindly off Nystrom's body. The goal was originally credited to Gaustad, before the official scorers took a look at the replay and saw that Nystrom's leg redirected the puck. The scoring change gave the forward his first career hat trick, but he wasn't done.

Halfway through the third period, Nystrom expertly tapped in a pass for his remarkable fourth. It was a goal eerily similar to the one his legendary father, Bobby, scored in overtime of Game Six to win the 1980 Stanley Cup for the Islanders, so perhaps it was genetics as much as expertise.

The goal put the Preds up 4-2 with precious little time left, and set Nashville up for a win that would have quickened the weak pulse of the team's playoff hopes and provided the best of sports story lines: A player who does The Little Things doing a Very Big Thing to carry his team to a needed win. (That there was a like-father-like-son element to the tale would only make the sportswriters salivate further.)

Games aren't played on paper, though, and games aren't played for the papers either. The Flames — a lowly team — charged back, tying the game thanks to two power-play goals and then winning in a shootout. The Predators were doomed by the breakaway contest, a bugbear all year, and by the penalty kill, a more recent weakness whose failings have been even starker in the wake of the shocking trade of stay-at-home stalwart defenseman Kevin Klein to the New York Rangers.

When the tale of the 2013-14 Predators is told, fingers will be pointed in many directions, as they'll likely miss the playoffs for the second year in a row: all-world goaltender Pekka Rinne's hip infection; the failure of the team to protect against Rinne's long-term absence by bringing in a veteran backup; a lack scoring borne of a free-agency fetishism for overpaid, less-skilled forwards; often-bizarre deployment strategies for the forward lines.

There is no one right answer to what went wrong, and there was no one moment when it all went wrong. But when they look back, they'll look at a night in Alberta when Eric Nystrom set the franchise record for goals in a game, and they'll look at how it was squandered. How Nystrom had a career night (in the midst of what is likely a career year for him, statistically) and how the team couldn't protect it. How a singular achievement became a footnote to a failure.

And that's a great shame, because great moments shouldn't be failures, they should be headlines. And the headline shouldn't be "What a Shame."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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