In a way, it's too bad that Edmonton lost to Calgary Saturday night, vaulting the Predators into the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in their six-year history. Otherwise, the Preds' overtime 2-1 win at Denver the next afternoon would have been a must-winand all the more dramatic.
But you won't find anyone in the Preds' semi-mythical land of Smashville complaining. That's because no one could be more elated than Predators fans finally to get a taste, even just a teeny bite, of hockey's Promised Land.
Finally, finally, finally, a break came their way. Two years ago, the youthful team played well enough to lift fans' hopes, only to fade badly after mid-February. Last season, after a miserable, injury-filled start, they caught fire in late December and positioned themselves to make good on owner Craig Leipold's playoff pledge. Then, while the Preds stayed pat through the trade deadline, other teams made player moves, the injuries returned and Nashville slid again.
This spring, it had begun for all the world to look as though the same heartbreaking pattern was about to repeat. Two months ago, the Predators had risen all the way to fifth in the Western Conference standings, and a playoff spot seemed assured. They broke with past form by trading draft picks for help in the stretch runwhich arrived most notably in the person of Steve Sullivan, who commemorated his first game in Nashville with a neat hat trick. As a team, they began scoring goals prodigiously (another break with the past).
And then they seemed to hit the brick wall. Other, more experienced teams picked up points while the Preds remained stuck. By last week, they were scrapping just to claim the eighth and final playoff berth that had seemed so certain not long before.
Last Saturday, the Predators hoped to clinch before the home crowd with a win over St. Louis. A sellout crowd provided a playoff atmosphere. They erupted as the Preds took an initial lead. But the Blues rallied for two goals. And when goalkeeper Tomas Vokoun was pulled with 1:30 left to provide an extra attacker, you could almost sense that the team's entire hopes hinged on this last, desperate move. And when the Blues scored not one, but two, empty-net goals to secure the 4-1 win, the roof of the Gaylord Entertainment Center seemed like a giant balloon into which someone had just stuck a pin.
Even though the Predators could still gain a playoff spot with a victory or an Edmonton loss, or ties by both, it was hard to escape that old sinking feeling. So Saturday night's W by Calgary came not so much as a pleasant surprise but as a mighty albatross lifted from the Predators' collective necks.
Calgary's win may be more important than Predator fans realize, even more important than a playoff clincher. It may prove to be a franchise clincher, too.
Whether the organization has been skating on thin ice, only their accountants know for sure. But it's at least fair to say that the surface has become a little slushy. Successive years of unsuccessful records left the team with the lowest attendance in the league. With the league's lowest payroll as wellpartly a product of organizational philosophy, partly a product of the attendance figuresthe franchise pursued a strategy that demanded more patience than many fans would have or that the league might afford.
When the NHL's collective bargaining agreement with the players expires after this season, there may a cataclysmic moving of the ground that could leave the league with a dramatically different landscape. Without a salary capwhich is only slightly less acceptable to the players than an Easter egg hunt at the Saudi royal palaceit's entirely conceivable that several unprofitable franchises might not survive. If you credit the opinions of a number of general managers around the NHL, one of those teams headed for extinction could be the saber-toothed Nashville cats.
To be sure, there has been a method behind GM David Poile's strategy of insisting that youth will be served, of stockpiling draft picks and eschewing contracts with big-name free agents who might have boosted both victories and the gate. If a salary cap agreement is reachedmost likely after a lockout by the owners next fallthe Detroits, Torontos, New York Rangers and others who locked veterans in with lavish, long-term deals will be forced to undergo some radical roster surgery. Meanwhile, the Predators, who will surely be well under any cap figure set by the league, will be sitting in the catbird seat, perfectly positioned to pick up a couple of stars to lead their roster of fast maturing kids.
The Predators' strategy seemed predicated on keeping enough fans engaged after the initial honeymoon while the organization built a consistent winner that would create plenty of demand for tickets. Along the way, as Poile counseled patience, some fans and Media Geniuses alike have questioned this approach.
With a playoff spot, Poile's strategy has received some much-needed validation. Fans have tangible evidence that the cast is playoff-worthy and only getting better.
It will be amazing now if attendance doesn't improve next yearmuch less amazing, though, than if the Predators upset the upset-prone Detroit Red Wings in their first playoff series.
Even if that doesn't happen, fans seem already content with the season. On behalf of these loyalists, who have patiently held their season tickets year after wait-till-next-year, the Preds organization might offer a line of thanks from Milton: "He also serves who sits and waits."
How It Looks from the La-Z-Boy
Steroids 1, Selig 0
OK, Selig is always zero. As a new baseball season starts this week, though, he's even more of a cipher than usual. In the wake of allegations that trainers to several of the game's highest profile players, including Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield, were doling out steroids, baseball has been almost consumed by the potentially mushrooming scandal. On top of that, concern among fans swirled that Bonds' home run record and the prodigious offensive accomplishments of others might prove tainted by steroid use.
Any imbecile (that is to say, Bud) could have seen this mess coming. For years, some players had complained that steroids had become a serious problem. Alarm bells should have sounded in Selig's cavernous head when guys like Bonds, in his late 30s, and Sammy Sosa, suddenly went huge on everyone, and Roger Maris' record that had stood for 40 years was surpassed four times in the space of four seasons.
Such perspicacity, sadly, would have been out of character for baseball's permanently acting commissioner. What was perfectly in character, however, was Bud's response to the scandal, which has become the only topic fans and media want to discuss. If anyone asks, Selig instructed players and teams, just say no to any discussion of steroids. Say that you want to talk about baseball instead.
Maybe, Bud imagines, the whole thing will just go away.