NASHVILLE – The Predators have lost two playoff series in their history to the Detroit Red Wings and one to the Chicago Blackhawks, but Nashville has never had home-ice advantage in any of those series.
That could change this spring.
The Predators will play either Detroit or Chicago in the Western Conference Quarterfinals starting next week -- and after a 2-0 victory at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday that eliminated the Dallas Stars from the playoffs, Nashville needs just one point in its season finale on Saturday at Colorado to secure the No. 4 seed in the West and, with it, home ice.
The Avalanche were eliminated from playoff contention with their 5-2 loss to Columbus on Thursday. Nashville has won two straight and allowed one goal in the last 125 minutes.
Through two periods the game was locked in a scoreless tie, but low-scoring Preds defenseman Francis Bouillon scored the game-winner at 4:28 of the third period. Patrik Hornqvist scored with 2:00 remaining and the desperate Stars taking chances to try and tie it.
"I guess per se we didn't need it as much as them, but in here we talked about how much we needed it stepping forward and moving forward for the playoffs," Nashville captain Shea Weber said.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz said he was unaware of Detroit's 2-1 regulation loss to New Jersey on Thursday. That score became final at the start of the third period of Nashville's game and allowed the Preds to regain control of their own destiny in terms of finishing fourth. Nashville now has 102 points and Detroit has 101; each finishes its season on Saturday. The Red Wings close at home on Saturday against Chicago, which can still pass the Red Wings for fifth but cannot catch Nashville after a 2-1 shootout loss at Minnesota.
"We were just worried about winning the game and seeing if we could put it back in our court," Trotz said.
Goalie Pekka Rinne made 28 saves for his fifth shutout this season. Rinne made his 72nd appearance of the season after not dressing on Tuesday because of an illness. He earned his League-leading 43rd win.
"It's always nice," Rinne said of bouncing back from his illness. "You always have a little bit of nerves, butterflies in your stomach when you go in the game when you've been sick or not feeling so great the last few days, so it was good to get that win and get right back in there."
The loss eliminated the Stars from any hopes of ending a playoff drought that dates to 2008. The Stars could have clinched a playoff berth in their season finale last April with a win but lost 5-at to Minnesota, which already had been eliminated, allowing Chicago to back into the playoffs.
The Stars have lost eight of their last 12 games in regulation – quite a fall after sitting atop the Pacific Division down the stretch. Stars captain Brenden Morrow bemoaned the failure of the team's power play, which went 0-for-4 on Thursday. Distraught about falling short, Morrow sighed and paused before answering a question about missing the playoffs.
"It's frustrating, disappointing, it's kind of a repeat – 'Groundhog Day' of last year -- and it doesn't get easier," he said. "You always want to win that last one. Give our fans the opportunity to see playoff hockey again. They deserve it. Since [new owner Tom] Gaglardi took over, they've been out to support us and root us on. It would've been nice to give them the opportunity to see playoff hockey."
Through two periods, neither team could score, as the two Finnish goaltenders were on top of their games. Kari Lehtonen stopped 17 shots – 29 for the game -- and Rinne stopped 16. Then Bouillon, who is on something of a scoring spree, pinched in and scored. Hornqvist skated out from behind the net and slammed a shot at Lehtonen. The rebound deflected into the slot and Bouillon backhanded it into the net from close range through a scrum.
Bouillon has scored four goals in his last 13 games after getting just one in his previous 87. He entered the season with 25 goals in 610 career games and has never scored more than five in a season.
He said as a young player, he took more chances – something he is doing more now – and it's resulting in goals. The change comes as he has been paired with Kevin Klein following the acquisition of Hal Gill, whereas earlier this season he was paired with young players like Ryan Ellis and Jack Hillen, who are more apt to take chances themselves.
"Frankie is one of the favorite guys," Trotz said. "It's always a solid, solid joyous type of bench when he scores. … He's jumping in at the right time. Just showing his veteran presence and I know he doesn't have a concussion so he doesn't think he's Ray Bourque or anybody like that."
Hornqvist added his team-best 26th by roofing a rebound over Lehtonen's glove.
First-year coach Glen Gulutzan and some players said Lehtonen deserved credit for getting the team as far as it did.
"By far, he's our team MVP," forward Steve Ott said. "If we didn't have Kari, we wouldn't even have a chance…. Now it's tough because obviously we're out. It's never fun, again, and it's the worst feeling for a professional hockey player."