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Refs had no blame, the better team won

By: Will Pitts

Referees are an easy target. It’s easier for fans to blame the officials when a game doesn’t go their team’s way. Seattle Seahawks fans still believe that poor officiating was the root cause of their team’s defeat in Super Bowl XL. Sacramento Kings fans have yet to get over the “rigged” 2002 Western Conference Finals. And just mentioning the name Don Denkinger is enough to make the blood of any St. Louis Cardinals fan boil.

Throughout the NHL offseason, Nashville Predators fans will likely feel the same burning frustration. From the opening period of the Stanley Cup Finals, when a Predators goal was overturned by a controversial offside review, a conga line of questionable calls went against Nashville.

In Game 5, Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby and Predators lightning rod P.K. Subban got into a nasty scuffle that resembled a Russo-era WCW pay-per-view match. After Subban had grabbed Crosby’s legs to immobilize him, Crosby grabbed Subban’s head and smashed it into the ice several times. Referee Brad Meier, who stood directly over the play, inexplicably gave the two the same penalty – two minutes for holding.

The following game, in what turned out to be the clincher, the zebras struck again. Penguins goaltender Matt Murray failed to cover up a puck, and Colton Simmons poked it into the net…after the whistle had been blown to freeze the puck. As it turned out, referee Kevin Pollock stood in the absolute worst viewing angle, and could not see the puck slide through Murray’s legs. The goal did not stand, and Pittsburgh would go on to win the game and the Cup.

On top of that…

…actually, that might be it.

The cold, hard truth is that the Predators’ struggles in the Stanley Cup Finals go farther than just getting a bad deal from the men in stripes.

The officials can’t be blamed for Jake Guentzel’s heroic effort in the first two games in Pittsburgh, nor can they be blamed for Pekka Rinne’s meltdown and the 6-0 shellacking the Predators received in Game 5. Even as Crosby and Subban decided to duke it out in that very game, the Penguins were already holding a 2-0 lead on their home ice.

And if a Predators fan were prompted, they’d tell you the refs were not responsible for how the team came back to tie the series with dominating home wins in games three and four.

In the storm of controversy, it may be easy to forget now, but Nashville came into the Stanley Cup Finals as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Their stat lines for the season aren’t typical of most Stanley Cup teams: a merely decent 11th out of 30 teams in scoring, and a middling 15th in goals allowed. Simply put, they weren’t supposed to be there at all.

Through sheer determination and the guiding hand of coach Peter Laviolette, they tore through three of the best teams in the Western Conference in a run of upset victories, including a stunning sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.

By the time the Predators had reached the Finals, however, there was just nothing left in the tank. Only one player on the team – captain Mike Fisher – had ever appeared in a Stanley Cup Final before, all the way back in 2007 (he lost that one too). The rest were completely new to the experience and the pressure of playing on hockey’s biggest stage. That pressure was compounded by the fact that they were facing the defending Stanley Cup champions, whose core was largely intact from two previous titles.

The Predators were about to run into a buzzsaw. When Jake Guentzel scored to shatter Nashville’s comeback attempt in Game 1, the buzzsaw struck, and Nashville was demoralized for the rest of the series.

As much as their fans would hate to admit it, they stood little chance against the powerful Penguins. Only the raucous home crowd at the Bridgestone Arena sustained the series long enough to reach six games. Perhaps the Predators can build on this experience and become a force to be reckoned with in the NHL, but this year, they weren’t quite ready. The better team won the series, and that is that.

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Will Pitts

After playing youth ice hockey for nine years and high school lacrosse for two years, William Pitts decided he would take the path of reporting on sports rather than playing them. In addition to writing for SoMuchSports, he also operates his own blog, the cleverly-named "Sports on TV" Blog, focusing on the business of televised sports. He hopes to one day become the next Al Michaels, but he'll gladly settle for becoming the next Joe Buck.

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