A few nights ago, I apparently cried out in my sleep "Juice! Juice!"
Was I thirsting for sweet refreshment? Was I replaying the 1992 Omar Epps vehicle in my brain?
Or was that my “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” — having learned that goaltender Juuse Saros had fallen victim to a late-season lower-body injury and would miss (at least) the first two games of the Nashville Predators' first-round playoff series against the No. 1 seed Colorado Avalanche?
The human mind is a mess, and mine is like a hoarder's cabin, full of random facts about Holy Roman emperors, dreadful 1990s Kansas City Royals teams and the more arcane bits of the Lebanon City Charter, so anything is possible.
Which is a good thing to remember this time of year, as the Preds head to Denver for Game 1 tonight at 8:30 p.m. on Bally Sports. Anything is possible.
The fact that the Predators are even playing in May seemed deeply unlikely before the season started. No one on ESPN's panel of experts tapped them for the postseason. Most pundits predicted they'd be scraping the Central Division cellar with the woeful Arizona Coyotes. Yet, for a spell in the fall and early winter, the Predators actually topped the division standings, aided in large part by having one of the few schedules largely unmarred by COVID cancellations and thus having played more games than pretty much anyone else. No matter! They were the tops.
But alas, makeup games and predictable corrections dragged the Preds down the ladder, and while the heat of the midseason meant a playoff berth was a virtual certainty, there was the matter of the opponent. Into the season's last few days, it looked as if the Preds would crossover to the Pacific Division and open against the Flames in Calgary. (Motto: "The Edmonton of Southern Alberta!") But then Saros' lower body went wrong. The Preds got a shocking shootout win against the Avs in front of backup goalie David Rittich, who is not a 1980s sitcom character actor, despite his name, but is in fact Czech.
Saturday, things got a little dicey. With The Other Back-Up Goalie Connor Ingram in net and despite scoring four goals in the game's first seven minutes, the Preds lost to the Coyotes, who brought in their 94th-string goalie, whose name I thought was Salieri for a not insignificant portion of the game. Before Game 82, the Predators were 31-0-1 when they'd led after two periods. Never in the history of the franchise had the team blown a four-goal lead. And certainly it was unexpected against the Coyotes, who avoided the ignominy of the NHL's wooden spoon with the win. The loss, coupled with Dallas popping in two goals in the third period against the Ducks — who were forced to play their emergency backup goalie, who was, sadly, not Julie "The Cat" Gaffney — slid the Preds into the second wild-card spot and locked up the matchup against Colorado.
Anything is possible.
Look: Even people who thought there was an outside chance the Preds could make a postseason push piled on caveats before the season started: "If a bunch of things go right, they might sneak in." Nearly everything went right. Roman Josi had a historic season with a team record 96 points, the most by a defenseman since Phil Housley's 97 in 1992-93. The Preds had two 40-goal scorers with Contract Year Filip Forsberg going for 42, one behind Matt Duchene. Nashville was one of only three teams with at least two 40-goal men, and the only one not based in Alberta. (Motto: "No, I Think You Are Talking About Saskatchewan.")
Add in a stellar year from Saros, 26 goals for hug-champion Ryan Johansen, 24 for Tanner Jeannot (best among rookies), a topflight power play and remarkably good injury luck, and it made for a scrappy bunch no one outside of 501 Broadway saw coming playing for the trophy.
But now what?
The Predators have to face the Avalanche, a team including forward Nathan MacKinnon, perhaps the best player on earth not currently playing in Canada (Motto: "But you have to like us! You have to!") and defenseman Cale Makar, perhaps the best defenseman not named Roman Josi.
There's captain Gabriel Landeskog, who is somehow only 29 years old despite having played for the Avs when they won the Stanley Cup in 1996. There's longtime former future Predator Nazem Kadri, who at 31, had a career year, which is the sort of thing that happens when you play with Nathan MacKinnon. There's Mikko Rantenen, whose name is fun to say (he is also good). There's Valeri Nichushkin, who the Avs saved from Dallas. There's Andre Burakovsky, who is Austrian! There's Kurtis MacDermid, which is not a name you make up when you check into a hotel. And there's Sam Girard, who was once a Predator, and the less we talk about why he isn't now the better.
All of this firepower is backstopped by Darcy Kuemper, who is exactly good enough to be the goalie for an Avalanche team that scores an estimated 9,438 goals per game.
It's not all doom and gloom though, because the Avs also have a shocking number of really old people, like Darren Helm and Andrew Cogliano.
And they have Jack Johnson, the butt of more jokes than maybe any American player in hockey history, and not just because he shares his name with a goofy stoner-groove singer-songwriter. Johnson is the victim of high expectations. Drafted No. 3 in the 2005 draft (that's the draft the NHL definitely didn't rig so Sidney Crosby would end up in Pittsburgh and also the draft in which the Predators selected Ryan Parent, who has been traded more times than GameStop stock when there's a sale on Axe Body Spray and Monster), he was heralded as the Great American Hope, and he got to play in Los Angeles. Which definitely does not have a history of overhyping players. Then he went to Columbus, which is certainly a place in Ohio, and Pittsburgh. And he's ... just been merely fine his entire career. In the regular season, that is. In the playoffs, he disappears faster than a hanging curve at Coors Field.
Maybe this is the year Johnson proves he's the less mediocre Jack Johnson. Anything is possible.
So what are the Preds going to have to do to stop all these superb players (and also Jack Johnson)? Force them to play like the Predators. Nobody wants to bang heads with Nashville, much as Nashville has no desire to try to get in a track meet with Colorado. Taking Colorado out of its game and forcing the Avs to go to the corners and along the boards constantly — under threat from the forecheck every time they try to set up — and protecting Rittich (or Ingram or whoever) from the barrage is the best chance Nashville has.
But of course, the Predators will need to stay out of the penalty box, which, to put it mildly, has been a bit of a problem this season.
Can they do it?
Anything is possible.