What a difference a month made for the Predators.
At one point in the season — as late as a 6-3 loss to the Lightning on March 13 — things looked bleak for the Predators’ playoff hopes. Nashville was 11-16-1, and all signs pointed to a trade deadline firesale. But then, things began to turn around. When fans awoke the morning of April 14, the Predators had gone 13-3-0 since the loss to Tampa Bay, and were five games above .500.
Even for Chris Mason, who has seen it all in Tennessee, this was a new one. The ex-NHL netminder — who spent 146 games and seven seasons of his 11-season career sporting the saber-toothed tiger crest — has been in the broadcast booth since 2015-16, when he joined the Bally Sports South radio team as a color analyst. In 2017, he joined radio partner Willy Daunic on the television side.
The duo are now set to call Predators Stanley Cup playoff action, as the scrappy team goes toe-to-toe with the Central Division champion Carolina Hurricanes. Sporting News recently caught up with Mason to chat about the Predators’ run to the postseason, their chances to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup and more.
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Editor’s note: The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Sporting News: How would you describe this Predators team?
Chris Mason: It almost is really a tale of two seasons. I think at the beginning of the year, there was so much turnover in the offseason, not only on the roster but the coaching staff. They brought in two new coaches into the mix. I think they brought in about seven or eight new players; It’s the biggest turnover they’ve had in many, many years and it really took a while for everyone to gel.
They really got off to a slow start in terms of trying to be the team that they said they all wanted to be, which was physical, hard-working, hard team to play against because of their attention to detail defensively. There’s a point the season they started getting injuries, guys weren’t playing up to their potential and their capabilities and it just seemed like it was going to be: alright, well, when the trade deadline comes we’re gonna have to move this veteran player and start trying to acquire assets and play all the young players. But it was almost this magical thing that happened when all these guys got hurt and they were down and out and they had this eight-game road trip against three of the best teams in the league … and it just seems since that road trip that their identity was forged.
They became a team that you instead of kind of shrugging your shoulders and saying, ‘You know, what are you guys? What kind of team is this?’ to this is a team that’s willing to work and play the right way. … It just kind of snowballed from there and it’s a team that once they got that belief, they could go up against anybody. There were a couple bumps along the road but nothing fazed them and for them to get in the playoffs, it’s really a miracle.
SN: (Predators coach) John Hynes was on our list of coaches on the hot seat halfway through the season. What caused the turnaround? Was it that players were finally buying into the systems?
CM: I think one thing that I have been impressed with, with John Hynes is when things were going bad and every single game you have to answer the same questions over and over again and it becomes a broken record. But he never wavered in his message, in his demeanor and I think for players, I think that goes a long way in helping the guys say that, you know, what, it’s bad right now, it’s not going well but our coach isn’t going to throw us under the bus. He believes in us, he believes in the message. … I think once they started to really commit to that, because sometimes it’s hard to get offensive players to really commit to that defensive mindset because they want to score goals and they want to get on the attack and they have a certain skill-set that sometimes playing that way as a forward it takes you out of your comfort zone. But once they started doing that, they started winning, and then they started scoring more goals and they started to play more offense because they were playing better defensively. I think once you play that way and the results follow and you’re scoring more goals as a team and you’re winning hockey games, I think that’s how you get buy-in.
SN: Juuse Saros is having a spectacular year. What is it about him that makes him so strong in net for this team? Is it the system in front of him or is this all him? What has impressed you the most about him this year?
CM: Well it’s both. Once they started turning it around, you’re obviously not getting as many of the Grade A chances against you. I think the game becomes a little more predictable, there’s not as many breakdowns. You’re playing against some awesome teams every single night (and) you’re going to give up chances, you’re going to give up the odd odd-man rush; but if you can cut those down and make them more predictable, it gives a goaltender a better chance to make saves.
And the thing that’s impressed me the most with him is: He’s one of the most sound technical goalies in the NHL. He’s almost robotic. His ability to read, anticipate plays and then process that information and react, it’s almost instantaneous. I think the thing that is most impressive about this is how long he’s kept that level of play up. … And for the last two months, since they started this run and he came back from injury, he’s been lights out.
SN: Pekka Rinne is the Predators. Was last week’s game his last in Nashville?
CM: You know what, I think there is only one man that can answer that question if it’s his last game and I know from being in that situation, that’s usually not a decision that’s made until the offseason. I know that he loves the game. I have a feeling he’s gonna play. I have a feeling he’ll think about this long and hard after the season. I feel he wants to play that’s just me. I just know how much he loves the game. I played with him. He’s such a competitor and he’s always pushing himself and I know he could still play, and play well at this level.
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SN: In the last two games of the regular season, the Predators played the Hurricanes and won both. How important was it to get those wins and set the tone for their first-round series?
CM: I think it was extremely important. I think if you ask Carolina because they didn’t play well and they sat a lot of guys. … I think if you hear the message out of their dressing room: Eh, doesn’t matter, it was a nothing game, we’re just glad nobody got hurt. That’s the spin that they’ll put on it.
But I think for the Predators, the last time they played them before this two-game stretch, they were a completely different team. For Nashville to get that confidence and that belief that you can beat a team in the dressing room and to kind of let Carolina know that — ‘Hey, we’re a different team than you saw earlier in the season and we play a different style of hockey and, if you’re going to play us you’re going to have to get into the trenches and you’re gonna have to battle and we’re going to make it a street fight.’ I think it did mean something.
SN: So how do you think the Predators stack up against the Hurricanes?
CM: Obviously, if you look at Carolina, analytically, they’re one of the best teams in the National Hockey League. They work hard. They’re well-coached. They have great special teams, they’ve got more offensive superstar power. So they’re probably going to be a runaway favorite. I don’t expect anybody picking the Preds to win. But that’s been their story all year.
So, I think that if they can get Carolina to play their game and if Nashville can get to their game, which is not necessarily always easy to do against a team as well as Carolina that moves the puck out of their zone so efficiently. But if they can make them play a heavy game and get into the battle areas and be really strong in the neutral zone and keep Carolina from getting up the ice with speed — kind of turn it into that kind of playoff gritty, no space out there type of a hockey game and stay of the penalty box, I think that’s gonna give them their best chance to win.
SN: Connor McDavid had a remarkable season. What are your thoughts on his year and, as a former goalie, what would be going through your mind if he was bearing down on you?
CM: Just to watch him, you just marvel at the guy every game. It’s unbelievable and he’s a player that just can’t be stopped, and I would have loved to just — obviously, don’t want to get scored on every time you play the guy — but just to see and experience that.
There were some players I played against, I remember like Pavel Datsyuk was the one for me. He just amazed me because of all the different things you could do in different situations and playing against him just made me appreciate how good he was even more. You know, a lot of times it’s because I got victimized by his skill and his ability to play the game of hockey.
I watch Connor McDavid and you go into these games and you’re playing against the best players, the best goalies in the world, and they know, they’ve watched video, they’ve played against him, they know what he does — and they still can’t stop him. It’s just really, I think, fascinating to watch a player that’s as dominant as he is in the sport of the best players in the world. … You know every team that he plays against, their number one focal point is to stop Connor McDavid and they can’t do it. And it’s just, it’s amazing. It’s amazing.
SN: Auston Matthews also had a big year. What’s it about his shot that you think makes it so, so lethal?
CM: Auston Matthews is a big guy. He can skate well for a big player, but his shot, his release point can come from anywhere. … It’s just so deceptive, he doesn’t have any tells. I know as a goaltender you look for tells in certain guys, certain body position, certain fakes in the way they start to move their body to give you some time to anticipate where they’re going to shoot but he’s just got so many different release points, and he’s so accurate and strong in-tight and the way that he positions his body to put him in a position to shoot, and to get into those areas is almost second to none.
SN: Alright, so final question, prediction time. Who do you have to come out of each division in the Stanley Cup playoffs?
CM: I will go, I think Vegas is going to come out (of the West). I think Toronto. I’m gonna go with the Islanders, and out of the Central, I’d like to pick the Preds, but I think I’m gonna go with Tampa Bay.
SN: Do you pick the Islanders because of the goaltending?
CM: I picked the Islanders (because) I know Barry Trotz, and I just feel that that’s a team that for whatever reason they — maybe because they’re not as exciting to watch I guess — but they don’t get the credit they deserve as a team to me that that plays the right way. They’re hard to play against. They have good goaltending. They’ve got some superstar players that can score given the opportunity. So, I just think they’re really gritty, tough playoff style of team.
SN: Who do you have going all the way and who be the Conn Smythe guy?
CM: I think all the way, I’ll pick Vegas. I think Vegas or Colorado but I’m going to pick Vegas, and the Conn Smythe will be Mark Stone or Marc-Andre Fleury.