NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The Nashville Predators thought they had all the pieces in place to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. Now dealing with a third straight first-round loss, they are about to find out the cost of coming up short.
Nashville once again ended its post-season hopes in five games to San Jose with a 3-2 loss Friday night. Losing on home ice for a second straight year only made the early exit that much more disappointing.
"This is going to hurt for a while, and you don't know how many chances you're going to get like this against a team like that," goaltender Tomas Vokoun said.
The Predators signed free agent centre Jason Arnott and forward J.P. Dumont last off-season after losing in the opening round last year as well. Sitting atop the NHL with the league's best record in February, they gambled two players and two prospects to rent Peter Forsberg.
None of the changes made any difference in the playoffs.
A three-game skid starting March 29 with a home loss against Detroit followed by losses to Dallas and Chicago cost the team the No. 1 seed in the West.
The Predators finished second in the Central Division behind Detroit and wound up with the fourth seed, landing a second straight playoff series with the Sharks, who now are 8-2 against Nashville in the post-season. Finishing ahead of Detroit would have meant playing Calgary, a team Nashville has beaten eight of the last nine games.
Now even more changes are expected for a franchise that spent much of this season worrying about attendance problems that could keep Nashville from getting all the possible money from revenue sharing.
Still, the Predators enjoyed the best season in the franchise's eight years with a record 51 victories and 110 points. That was good enough to finish third overall in the NHL.
"This franchise has a great future," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "These experiences they go through are just going to make this team better."
Trotz and his coaches are not under contract for next season, and Trotz, the only head coach this franchise has ever known, has been criticized for not protesting the lack of penalties called on the Sharks during their first-round loss.
Asked after the loss if he would be back, Trotz said that decision rests with owner Craig Leipold and general manager David Poile. But the usually low-key coach defended his work over eight seasons.
"We've done great things," he said. "I'm very proud of what we've done. We had 110 points this year. There's a couple of Original Six teams that have been around 80 years that haven't had 110 points.
"I'm not going to let any of you taint this team. This team has done a god job. This organization has done a good job. A lot of times, we don't get the respect I think we deserve."
San Jose coach Ron Wilson, a playoff veteran, did his part in helping the Sharks draw penalties. Coincidentally or not, the Sharks had 30 power plays to Nashville's 22. Three Predators were ejected in the series.
"We took too many penalties," Nashville forward Vern Fiddler said. "There were calls that were called that should have been called, and those are the ones that cost us."
The Predators also didn't have forward Steve Sullivan, who hadn't played since Feb. 22 with a back injury. He was their top goal scorer with 22 when he got hurt and finished only five back of the team leaders. Forward Martin Erat also missed the last two playoff games when he re-injured his knee.
"I'd love to see us healthy," Trotz said.
Even if the Predators are healthy next fall, several players may not be back. Paul Kariya, the team's top scorer with 76 points, is a free agent along with Scott Hartnell and captain Kimmo Timonen, their most experienced defenseman.
Forsberg also is a free agent said he's not sure if he'll play again after foot injuries limited him to 57 games this season.
"Coming here though, I had a lot of fun," he said. "It's a great group of guys. It's just sad we had to leave and go out so early."