After finishing second in the Central Division for the third straight season, Nashville is now looking to advance further than the quarterfinal round of the Western Conference playoffs for the first time in its 10-season history.
Of course, the team is already in playoff mode following its scintillating finish to the regular season.
The surge to earn a spot among the top eight in the Western Conference was nothing short of remarkable for the Predators, who gained at least one point in six straight games to pass Vancouver for a playoff spot with one game remaining in the regular season.
The playoff appearance will be the fourth straight for Nashville. In the Predators' first appearance, in 2002-03, the club took Detroit to six games. In each of the past two seasons, Nashville has lost to San Jose in five-game series in the first round.
Last season’s early elimination was a bitter pill to swallow as the club expected more, especially with stars Kimmo Timonen
, Paul Kariya
and Peter Forsberg
. Behind that star power, the club established franchise records in points (110), wins (51), road wins (23) and total goals (272).
This season, most of those stars were gone. Timonen, Kariya and Forsberg moved on, as did the younger Scott Hartnell
. But the Preds never wavered in their belief their belief that they were a playoff team.
It became clear that the hockey gods were looking down on Nashville in the final week of the regular season. How else could you explain the scenario on April Fools’ Day when Nashville’s fourth line of Rich Peverley
, Jordin Tootoo
and Brandon Bochenski
combined for six points and three goals to rally the Predators, who trailed by three goals, to a 4-3 overtime win against St. Louis. Prior to the comeback victory, the Predators had the League’s worst record (6-26-5) when allowing the game’s first goal.
Later that night, Vancouver blew a two-goal lead and an opportunity to leap Nashville in the conference standings in a 4-2 setback to Colorado. The Canucks had been 30-7-4 when scoring the first goal of a game.
It was the Predators' version of the “Music City Miracle.”
In an effort to add some depth and prove he was willing to make that late-season push, Nashville General Manager David Poile acquired Bochenski from Anaheim and forward Jan Hlavac from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline on Feb. 26.
Both have played vital roles and assisted in Nashville’s torrid playoff push.
Things didn’t look too promising at the start of the season when the franchise, in the process of being sold, traded franchise goalie Tomas Vokoun, Timonen and Hartnell. The team also let Kariya and Forsberg walk as free agents.
The free-agent replacements consisted of goalie Dan Ellis, who had started just one NHL game with Dallas, defenseman Greg de Vries and forwards Radek Bonk, Martin Gelinas and Jed Ortmeyer.
As we now know, the addition of Ellis proved to be an astute one. Ellis’ shutout streak of 233:38, from the first period against Chicago on March 22 to 3:21 of overtime on March 30 in Detroit, is fifth-longest in the NHL since the 1944-45 season. It also served as the foundation for the last-season push. During that span, he turned aside 147 shots, and his two shutouts gave him six for the season, setting another franchise record previously shared last winter by Chris Mason and Vokoun.
Mason had earned the starting role when the season began following Vokoun’s trade to Florida, but Ellis’ spectacular play eventually forced Mason to the bench. Still, Mason is certainly capable of keeping his team within striking distance and Nashville coach Barry Trotz won’t hesitate to flip-flop his goalies.
The Predators were also hampered by injuries much of the season. Steve Sullivan (158 points in 150 games for Nashville) didn’t play a game following back surgery and Gelinas and Ortmeyer each suffered season-ending knee injuries in February. On top of that, forwards Vern Fiddler, Scott Nichol, David Legwand and Peverley and defenseman de Vries have all played through various ailments this season.
``This time of year, when you want to get in the playoffs, it’s most important to push through aches and pains,’’ Ellis told the Tennessean. ``This is crunch time, so you set aside any injuries and do what’s best for the team.’’
Nashville’s resolve proved critical, as it gained ground during the final month of the season to supplant Vancouver in the standings.