The GNASH playoffs begin tomorrow. For the past few days, Michael Hackney, who has broadcast GNASH games for his own company, the Middle Tennessee Sports Network, since 2009, has contributed articles to Penalty Box Radio about the history of the GNASH playoffs. This is his playoff preview. The Middle Tennessee Sports Network is online at MTSNOnline.com. From there, you can find the network’s Twitter and Facebook accounts through the “Connect” page. MTSN will broadcast select Predators Cup games over the next two-and-a-half weeks, beginning tomorrow night.

ashton-remax_NEWLast year, GNASH introduced a unique new format for its postseason. Of the 18 teams that took part in 2016-17, 14 were placed into the Predators Cup to start the playoffs. Montgomery Bell and Mt. Juliet were given byes to the quarterfinals, and the other 12 were matched against each other. The other four were sent to the Henry Hine Cup, where they, too, were matched against each other. The playoffs began, and the six first-round losers from the Preds Cup were dropped into the Hine Cup, while the two first-round losers from the Hine Cup were dropped into the Mielnik Cup. After that, the four Hine Cup quarterfinal losers were also dropped into the Mielnik Cup.

Unfortunately for those six teams that got to the Preds Cup quarters, there would be no more dropping. From that point, it became win or go home. Same for losing semifinalists in the Hine Cup, and a team that lost at any point of the Mielnik Cup. When the dust settled, Ravenwood had won their fifth Predators Cup, Independence-Summit walked off with the Hine Cup, and Hendersonville-Beech had fought hard with Ensworth-Oakland to grab the Mielnik Cup.

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This year, with the number of teams in the league dropping to 15, the Mielnik Cup has been discontinued, and everyone will start the playoffs tomorrow night in the Predators Cup. Brentwood, as the regular season champions, will get a bye to the quarterfinals, and kick off their postseason on Wednesday.

The drop-down format has been slightly altered for this season. While the seven losers in the first round of the Predators Cup will still be dropped into the Hine Cup, the four losing quarterfinalists will also be dropped to the second-tier tournament, unlike last year. Once the Predators Cup is down to its last four teams, it will transition from a single-elimination tournament to a double-elimination tournament. The Hine Cup will be single-elimination throughout.

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This twist means that the Hine Cup will have its deepest field ever for this year. In my mind, if the teams that I think will drop do indeed drop, up to nine could walk away with the trophy. The only two teams I can’t see winning it are the two teams that finished at the very bottom of the standings, Blackman-Stewarts Creek and Nolensville/Ravenwood II. Both teams have porous defenses, and don’t possess the scoring depth to overcome that issue. Nolensville’s goaltender, Anthony Alvarez, is better than both of Blackman’s goaltenders, but he can’t stop every shot that comes his way. His GAA in the regular season was 6.95. To Nolensville’s credit, they have made good teams work hard for wins against them this season, and they could steal a game in the Hine Cup, but not win the whole thing.

If Father Ryan, Centennial-Page, Ensworth-Oakland, Mt. Juliet, the Tennessee Outlaws, Pope John Paul II-CPA, Independence-Summit (the reigning Hine Cup champions), Franklin-Hume Fogg, and Lipscomb-Brentwood Academy all drop into the Hine Cup, as I expect them to, I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of them win the tournament.

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First of all, Father Ryan. I think the Fighting Irish have to be the Hine Cup favorites. They could sneak into the last four of the Predators Cup, but if they win their first-round game with Franklin-Hume Fogg tomorrow night, they’d very likely end up playing Montgomery Bell in the quarterfinals, and MBA only beat the Irish 3-0 last Monday, and I can’t see them getting revenge, knowing how deep MBA’s offense is. Against potential Hine Cup opponents this season (the other eight teams I listed, plus Blackman and Nolensville), Father Ryan went 7-1-2 (the “2” is draws, not OT/SO losses). Father Ryan were 4-4-1 at the holiday break. They came right out, and won three in a row, before a 2-2 draw with the Outlaws in Week 14, and then the aforementioned loss to MBA last week. They are a relatively young team that got better over the course of the season, and that, to me, makes them the favorites. And if Father Ryan do win the Hine Cup, they would become the first team in GNASH history to have won the Hine Cup and Preds Cup (2009), but never the GNASH Cup.

Centennial-Page could certainly win the Hine Cup, but their goaltending is their Achilles heel. The combined save percentage of Theo Strunce and Jackson Clemons in the regular season was .805, compared to the .880 that Johnny Mugnano posted for Father Ryan alone. Their scoring depth is better than Ryan’s, as two of Centennial’s players, Tanner Watkins and Michael Zarr, both passed the 10-goal mark in the regular season. Father Ryan had no player top 10 goals. In fact, only their captain, Quentin Rummo, surpassed the 10-point mark. In their one regular season meeting, Ryan and Centennial ended in a 1-1 deadlock. Another problem for Centennial is that they can often get off to a slow start. This is what bit them in Week 4, when they were upset by then-winless Independence-Summit. They’ll need to be perfect just about if they want to win the Hine Cup. Speaking of history, if the Cougars do win the Hine Cup, then Centennial would join Mt. Juliet-Wilson Central and Pope John Paul II on the list of teams that have won the GNASH, Predators, and Hine Cups, while Page, who won the GNASH Cup in 2004 as a scholastic team, would join those three teams plus MBA on the list of those who have won the GNASH and Hine Cups.

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It was nice to see Ensworth-Oakland have the regular season that they did, finishing 7-7 (way better than 2-13-1 last year). But they come into this postseason on a three-game losing streak, having been upset by Nolensville 6-5 on the final day of the regular season last Monday. Still, they had seven skaters surpass the 10-point mark in the regular season. Their two leading scorers, Henry Hitt and Ian MacDonald, each had 11 goals, and Dalton Davis and Ryan Seibert each went past the 10-assists barrier. A feather in their cap was a fine 3-1 over Father Ryan in Week 5, but they also lost to Mt. Juliet in Week 1, and Centennial-Page in Week 11. Their top goaltender, Ethan Roy, finished with a .880 save percentage, and they’ll need him to be great if they want to go all the way.

At the holiday break, Mt. Juliet sat fifth in the standings at 5-3-1. They came out of the break, and proceeded to lose four in a row, ending the losing streak last Monday against Lipscomb-Brentwood Academy. The Golden Bears have a couple of decent lines – six of their skaters passed the 10-point mark, but only Dylan Kraay scored 10 goals – but the issue is their goaltending. Their netminders aren’t bad. They’re small. And in a sport like hockey, size of a goaltender can matter in big names. Look at Pekka. Juuse Saros is small for a goalie, but he has good lateral movement, and is good with his leg pads. Michael Dillard is an eighth grader. He played in goal against Brentwood in Week 6, and was impressive. He made 36 saves on 43 shots, but Brentwood still put the puck past him seven times because he couldn’t cover the whole net. During the four-game losing streak, Mark Broekhuizen played in goal against Father Ryan, allowing eight goals on 23 shots. Sebastian Gibson went 2-2 in four outings. The good news for Mt. Juliet is, their goalies are all young, so, even if they don’t win the Hine Cup this year, their goalies can grow, and become even more reliable netminders in the future.

Speaking of goalies, the Tennessee Outlaws’ top starter, Brent Kitchens, is nothing short of amazing. Just two weeks ago, he made 57 on 61 against Montgomery Bell, easily the best offense in GNASH. If any of the Top 4 had him, they would be a heavy Predators Cup favorite. Kitchens had a .910 save percentage in the regular season, the highest of any potential full-time Hine Cup goalie. The issue with the Outlaws, though, is scoring depth. Jacob Heinrich was the only player to break the 10-goal barrier, scoring 13. Seven of Heinrich’s goals, though, came in two games: he had three against Franklin-Hume Fogg in Week 4, and four against Blackman-Stewarts Creek in Week 6. Jacob Fink, the second-leading goal scorer, had seven goals all season. The Outlaws also had a lack of speed this season, thanks to graduating seven players from last year’s squad, including Braxton McGill and Jackson Reid. Another speedy player, Tyler Henderson, opted not to play this season. Kitchens will be good, but the offense needs to be better if they want to become the first supplemental team to win a GNASH tournament. By the way, the Outlaws have a league-high 13 seniors this season. That’s right. 13 seniors. MBA have 11, but still, 13 seniors!

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Pope John Paul II-CPA come into the playoffs having won their last three regular season games. While the Knights were OK on scoring, their defense was lacking this season. They ranked in the Top 5 in goals against with 79. They’re also prone to lackluster starts. Examples include their losses to Ensworth-Oakland and Centennial-Page in Weeks 7 and 9, respectively. They also let a late lead against Father Ryan in Week 3 slip away, losing 6-5 on a goal in the last minute. They’ll need to be rock solid if they want to win a second Hine Cup in the last three years. One Knight to keep an eye on in the future is Tommy Chunchukov. The eighth-grader had nine goals in just six games this season.

If Independence-Summit want to repeat as Hine Cup winners, they’ll need to rely on the continued good play of their defensemen, Gary Hix III, Josh Miclette, and Liam O’Neal. They’ll also need their top goalie, Noah MacNicoll, to help them steal a few games, like he did in their Week 4 upset of Centennial-Page, which was the Eagles’ first win of the season (their Week 1 loss to Lipscomb-Brentwood Academy was later turned into a forfeit victory thanks to a board decision). Where the Eagles lack this year is offense. No player scored 10 goals, with Zach Giblin leading in that category with seven. He was also the only double-digit point getter, ending the regular season with 10. They did lose a close one to Father Ryan in Week 13 in late January, so, I definitely wouldn’t count them out.

Franklin-Hume Fogg’s problem at the start of the season was they didn’t have a goalie on their roster. So, thanks to the goalie pool, they had to borrow goalies from other teams. But, with five games left in the regular season, they finally got a goalie of their own. Price Wynn made his debut in Week 12 (Franklin-Hume Fogg still had to play their Week 10 game against Ensworth-Oakland at this point), and made an immediate impact, as the RebelKnights drew 3-3 with Centennial-Page, Wynn making 27 saves on 30 shots. The next week, Franklin beat Blackman-Stewarts Creek 6-4, Wynn making 38 saves on 42 shots. Even in the three games that Franklin lost with Wynn in net, he did pretty well. His “worst” game was against Brentwood last Monday, where he made a season-high 42 saves in a 5-2 loss. Franklin’s issue is their offense. Their leading scorer was senior Sam Howell, who had eight points from just six goals (also a team high) and two assists. Franklin will need to support Wynn’s good performances with lots of goals if they want to win a trophy.

Lipscomb-Brentwood Academy’s season was turned upside down late last month, when the GNASH board forced them to forfeit six of the 11 games they’d already played due to playing an ineligible player. They’d already had to forfeit their Week 4 game to Father Ryan – which they won on the ice – back in November. Despite the decision, the Mustangs refused to quit. In their first game after the decision, they played Brentwood. Lipscomb scored the first goal, only for Brentwood to rattle off six in a row. Still, the Mustangs didn’t quit, and scored twice more to get to a 6-3 final. A week later, they dominated Nolensville/Ravenwood II right from puck drop, winning 8-1. The most dangerous thing about Lipscomb is their top line of brothers Sean and Sam Hagan and Zach Martin. Put that line on any of the Top 4 teams, and they would become a heavy Preds Cup favorite (even more so if you put Brent Kitchens in goal). They will throw that line at their opponents as often as possible. Sean Hagan finished second in scoring in the regular season with 38 points. Martin finished second in goals with 21. The leader in both categories? Ravenwood’s dangerous Liam Hussey. Not a bad guy to finish runner-up to. Lipscomb’s problem is goaltending. They, too, don’t have a permanent goalie, and have to borrow. That can really mess with a gameplan when you have to help out a different guy every night. Just don’t relax when the Hagans-Martin line is out there, because they will burn you as many times as they can. That top line alone can win a Hine Cup if you let them.

Now, let’s turn to the Predators Cup. I believe that the final four will be the Top 4 teams from the regular season: Brentwood, Hendersonville-Station Camp, Ravenwood, and Montgomery Bell.

Let’s start with Hendersonville-Station Camp. These two teams deciding to merge was a great decision, and it made both of them better. Head coach Tim Rathert has been wanting a Sumner County superteam of some type for a few years now. And they played really well. Their only loss was to Brentwood, and they drew with MBA in a game that they probably should’ve won. Their finest moment came in Week 10, when they beat Ravenwood 3-2 a week before Christmas. The best thing about Hendersonville is their goaltending. Jacob Shaw is one of the Top 3 goalies in GNASH based on talent alone. In 10 starts, he went 8-1-1 with a shutout, making 158 saves on 174 shots. His younger brother, Brandon, is just as good, winning all five of the starts he made this regular season. Hendersonville’s defense is also pretty stout, allowing an average of just 19 shots on goal per game this season. Never once did they allow 35 shots in a game. Their issue, for me, is their offense. They had three players – Alex Yarger (17), Owen Garner (15), and Brodie Ruffing (11) – break the 10-goal barrier. Evan Rench and Blake Fuqua each finished with nine goals, with Tyler Kimbro being the next closes with six. Depending on Yarger, Garner, Ruffing, and Rench in the early rounds will be fine, but once they start going up against the likes of Brentwood and MBA, that offense will need to be as stout as Jacob Shaw is in goal.

Ravenwood have won the Preds Cup five times, a record. If they win it this year, they’ll be the first to win it six times, and the first to three-peat. Their goaltender, Thomas Ito, is, for my money, the best in GNASH. His four shutouts in the regular season were a league high. His .924 save percentage was tops among goalies who played 10 or more games (it ranked third in the entire league). When he’s on his game, everyone else is. Turning to the offense, Liam Hussey may only be a sophomore (I think he’s a sophomore, anyway), but he’s easily become the most dangerous offensive player in the league. He had a league-high 23 goals in the regular season. He had five hat tricks, including one five-goal game, and two four-goal games! Hussey’s 42 points also led the league. Luke Williams finished second on the points list for Ravenwood, with just 19. Williams, Peter Cloud, Sean Karaman, and Joey Friedenberger are all very good on offense, with Karaman scoring ten goals in just nine games. The problem with Ravenwood is, in big games this season, they struggled. They went 1-2 against the other three Top 4 finishers in the regular season, only beating MBA in Week 1. After losing to Hendersonville in Week 10, they came out of the holiday break, and got flatout dominated by Brentwood, losing 5-0, the first time in a long time that the Bruins have shut them out. If the Raptors want to three-peat, they’re going to need a great all-around team effort in the later rounds.

Without a doubt, Montgomery Bell had the best offense in the league this season. Six players broke the 20-point barrier, with three getting close. The Big Red dominated weaker opponents, scoring 10 or more goals in seven of their 11 victories on the season. Their defense was also merciless, allowing only 10.5 shots on goal per game. Even in the games against Ravenwood, Hendersonville-Station Camp, and Brentwood, they allowed 22 shots, 15 shots, and 22 shots, respectively. They only allowed FIVE shots in their regular season finale against Father Ryan last Monday. The question for me is goaltending. It’s not bad by any stretch, but in those three games against the other Big 3, Henry Hylbert allowed 11 goals. He has a tendency to give up big rebounds. One got lost in a scrum against Ravenwood, allowing Joey Friedenberger to score the game-winning goal, and snap MBA’s two-and-a-half year unbeaten streak in regular season play. The main backup, Isaac Sedek, is also good, but has a tendency to dive out after every puck that comes towards him. That has to be reeled in. If MBA can fix the (minor) issues with the goaltending for the later rounds, maybe they’ll finally get their hands on the Preds Cup.

And that leaves us with Brentwood. The Bruins finished 14-0 in the regular season. They were by far the best team. 19 of their skaters scored at least one goal this season, with six of those players getting into double-digits, Ben Wallace leading the team with 17 goals. In net, Ryan Bobrow had three shutouts, and stopped 204 of 228 shots. Their defense also doesn’t let the puck get to the net a lot, averaging 17.7 shots on goal per game. I can’t really think of any glaring issues. The worst I saw them play was their Week 1 game against Centennial-Page, when they allowed two shorthanded goals on one power play (both scored by Tanner Watkins). One came from a turnover inside their own zone, another was when one of their players (I can’t remember who) had the puck taken right off of him by Watkins at the Centennial blue line, which then turned into a breakaway. They’re more careful with the puck now, not allowing too many breakaways, and not allowing too many shots in tight. If they just play the way they have all season, they’ll win the Preds Cup for a fourth time.

Any of those four would be a worthy Preds Cup winner, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of them skating with it in a couple of weeks’ time, but I’m picking Brentwood to go all the way. And I’ll pick Father Ryan to win the Hine Cup.

But what do I know? Maybe someone’s been hiding something from us, and we’ll have a surprise winner. After all, who saw world champion snowboarder Ester Ledecka stealing Olympic gold in the women’s super-G the other night? Not even she did, but she did.

That’s why we play the games, run the races, etc.

Let the playoffs begin.

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