NASHVILLE -- The Nashville Predators sent a strong message to teammate Ryan Johansen after their 6-3 win against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final at Bridgestone Arena on Monday.
It may have looked like a simple hug from defenseman Roman Josi, but it was one of love and a deep appreciation for the job Johansen had done to help the Predators reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their history.
The Predators were gathered around the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl and had just finished taking a group photo. Johansen was in the middle of the photo on crutches, a visible reminder of the surgery he had to combat acute compartment syndrome after Game 4.
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Josi approached a cheerful Johansen and reminded him of how important he has been to the Predators and their run to the Cup Final, which Johansen will miss.
"I told him I love him," Josi said. "We miss him. He's a huge part of our team. He played a great playoffs and we miss him. I just told him we miss him, but he's still a huge part of us."
There has been no shortage of adversity on Nashville's path to the Cup Final. In addition to losing Johansen, forward Kevin Fiala was knocked out of the playoffs with a fractured left femur and forward Craig Smith has been battling an injury since Game 3 of the Western Conference First Round against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"It's something I think we worked on all year inside the locker room," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. "A lot of teams talk about character and they talk about culture, and we actually worked on it a lot inside the room. And part of that is everybody accepting responsibility for our outcome and where we're at.
"And to take those pieces out is difficult. Those are big pieces. Craig Smith not being there, Kevin Fiala, Ryan Johansen, those are guys we'd like to have in the lineup but they're not available. So at the point there's only one choice, sink or swim."
Video: ANA@NSH, Gm6: Fiala, Johansen rally Nashville crowd
The Predators will face either the Ottawa Senators or the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Final, and they'll do so without their top center.
Game 1 will take place on Monday, May 29.
But if there was ever any doubt about how much fans in Nashville appreciated the way Johansen played during the playoffs, look no further than before the start of Game 6.
Former Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George, one of the most beloved figures in Nashville sports history, served as the pregame towel waver and hype man to the roar of the crowd. The camera on the Jumbotron then flashed to Johansen and Fiala, and the volume was perhaps as loud as it was when the Predators clinched the Western Conference.
In that moment, and after the Predators had won, Johansen's smile couldn't be wiped off his face. His teammates hope they can give him another reason to smile with four more wins.