Every season, there comes at least one game, a watershed moment on the schedule that can define or lend legitimacy to a contending team. Sure, at first glance it looks like just another tilt, just 1 of 82. Losing this game doesn’t mean that your chances are reduced, just as winning doesn’t automatically assure you of success. Yet, there’s a certain intangible importance in winning that match-up. I’m not sure if there’s a psychological component to it, or if it’s necessary to validate yourself in the ubiquitous cosmic order of sports. Whatever it is, it’s a game that sticks out in years to come, especially when the season’s final results have been forever scribed into the annals of hockey history. If you win it, you look to it as potentially the catalyst that propelled you to greatness. Lose– and it’s the “what if…” moment that haunts you forever.
It’s my opinion that last night’s Predators\Blackhawks game was one of those crucial matchups.
Some may disagree, and I can certainly see their argument. The Predators entered the night 2 points behind the Blackhawks with the same number of games played. A win didn’t clinch the division, and while the Predators would vault Chicago in the Western Conference standings by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker with a win, it didn’t even spring them firmly ahead. Yet there seemed to be a quiet, innate importance to this game. A loss would see Nashville still firmly in sixth place and comfortably grasping a playoff spot as they headed into the All-Star Break–but four points behind the fifth place Blackhawks and 5 behind the division-leading Red Wings. With the stretch still ahead, there would still be time to make it up, but something about the task seems considerably lighter, having won when it mattered. It’s a statement to Predators fans, the rest of the league, and most importantly the team itself: this incarnation of the Nashville Predators is different. There’s something present for the Preds this year that might not have been there in seasons gone by. I don’t think it’s something as cut-and-dry as talent or skill. I think it’s the same sort of quality that manifests itself in the numerous, thrilling come-from-behind victories that we’ve experienced throughout the year.
A couple of seasons back, the Predators were in a similar game with the Detroit Red Wings, whom they had chased through much of the season and finally had in their crosshairs. A win would have pushed the Preds into a tie for the division lead–something they had never held that late in the season. Instead, the Wings handily beat the Preds. Although Chicago eventually won the division that year(dishing out the most painful loss in franchise history in the process), it’s a game I often find myself reflecting on, and wondering “what if we had won it?”
This isn’t the only example of a game of this magnitude that we lost, but the point is that this time was finally different. While there’s still work to be done, and while I don’t advocate resting on the laurels of fifth place and a spot in the standings ahead of the ‘Hawks, this is a small milestone that you have to stop and appreciate for a moment. Perhaps the most exciting prospect of all–
–this may not and likely will not be the only such game, this year. The first one was overcome, and the Predators are that much stronger for it. The confidence, the nebulous “it” is there, and from that they can build and prepare to win the next, even bigger game.