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Long odds are nothing new for Nashville

by John McGourty

Success hasn't come easily to the Nashville Predators this season -- witness Tuesday's dramatic 4-3 comeback victory in overtime against the St. Louis Blues -- but consider what they've accomplished against a backdrop in which very few people expected any success at all.

With two games left, the Predators hold the eighth and final Western Conference Stanley Cup Playoff spot. They will likely finish ahead of two Central Division rivals, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Chicago Blackhawks, who were expected to battle for second place in the division. Instead, it appears Nashville will be the runner-up to the Detroit Red Wings.

Nashville may have to win both of its games. They host the Blues Thursday and visit the Blackhawks Friday night in their season finale. They have a one-point lead over the Vancouver Canucks, who lost 4-2 to the Colorado Avalanche Tuesday night. The Canucks have two remaining home games against the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.

"Everyone here shows up and works hard. When you have 20 guys who give it their all every night, you're going to win games," said Ryan Suter, the third-year defenseman who has emerged as a team leader.

The Predators joined the NHL in 1998 and since then, they've had one general manager, David Poile, and one coach, Barry Trotz.

They showed steady improvement in those eight years, making the Stanley Cup Playoffs three years ago for the first time and then finishing second in the Central Division, behind the Detroit Red Wings, in each of the past two years while also qualifying for the playoffs.

If there was one negative to be said about the steadily improving team, it was that it had never won a playoff series.

The run of success seemed imperiled last year when the club was put up for sale and some important free agents were traded or simply allowed to depart. Management had instructions to cut payroll to make a purchase more attractive. Key players such as captain Kimmo Timonen, leading scorer Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Scottie Upshall and power forward Scott Hartnell all departed.

"We've drafted very well and we have confidence in our players," said Trotz. "We had to put some pieces back because we lost so much. We were looking for good two-way players such as Radek Bonk, Greg de Vries, Jed Ortmeyer and Martin Gelinas. We knew that we just had to get through this year and show that we are resilient. We still have a good core of young guys that we can build around.

"I knew we were in decent shape and that it would be more of a mental hurdle than a physical one. It's easy to use the crutch that we lost a lot of players. That's the woe-is-me factor. Right from day one, we tried to take those crutches away. We did a good job of it."

Suter exhibited a warrior's mentality when asked if he thought at training camp that this team would be in this position. He's looking forward, not back.

"We're excited about our team," said Suter, putting the conversation on his terms. "If we can get into the playoffs, I think we'll do well because we battle every night. We're not getting the scoring those guys gave us last year, but we're out there battling every game."

That said, the No. 8 seed will play the Red Wings in the conference quarterfinal -- no easy task.

"We've had good games against Detroit this year," said goaltender Dan Ellis, who was named one of the NHL's Three Stars of the Week last week after posting a 2-0-1 mark in three games in which he set a franchise record with a scoreless streak of 233:39 minutes. "Both teams have fought really hard and most games have been very close throughout the season. They are a team that is extremely gifted. They have so much firepower. Sometimes, I think we need to have more confidence. We're not playing with them, we're playing against them. They come hard."

Suter chose his words carefully, making sure nothing he said would be used to motivate the Red Wings. He respects but doesn't fear the Detroit players.

"They are a good team. We've played them well," Suter said. "They have some of the best players in the league over there in Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek, they've got an All-Star Team over there. If we just show up and play hard, we can play with anybody."

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