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Predators finally playing up to expectations

Nashville undefeated in playoffs after difficult regular season

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / LNH.com Senior Managing Editor

ST. LOUIS -- The Nashville Predators are, as it turns out, who many of us thought they were.

They just needed to realize it.

The Predators are the only team yet to lose in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. They swept the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks and won Game 1 of the Western Conference Second Round against the St. Louis Blues 4-3 on Wednesday.

Game 2 of the best-of-7 series will be at Scottrade Center on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

This is the first time all season Nashville has won five straight games, and it's coming at the perfect time for a team many expected would have this kind of success right out of the gate but has struggled to reach this level of excellence.

 

[RELATED: Complete Blues vs. Predators series coverage]

 

As a result, the Predators entered the playoffs as the lowest-seeded qualifier in the West, but try convincing the Blackhawks they deserved that ranking.

Nashville certainly didn't look like a bottom seed, and is not playing like one.

"We were happy with our game, confident in our game," defenseman Ryan Ellis said Thursday. "Really, the League's so tight, you can win any night. We knew we just had to get in and we'd be a dangerous team from there. So far we've proved our worth, but we need to do the right things; we have to regroup today, watch some video, see what we can do better and learn from and continue to grow."

Video: NSH@STL, Gm1: Subban buries scorching one-timer

That growth began from the start of the season in October; the Predators were burdened by the weight of high expectations, then failed to live up to them.

The offseason trade with the Montreal Canadiens that brought defenseman P.K. Subban to Nashville for defenseman Shea Weber created unprecedented buzz around the Predators, expected to team Subban with Ellis and Roman Josi to form arguably the most mobile, offensively dangerous group of defensemen in the NHL.

Instead, Nashville went 2-5-1 in October, when it struggled to manage the changes and, to a lesser extent, the accolades heaped on them.

"We come in, we're supposed to be this awesome, amazing team and we didn't start so hot," Ellis said. "We started to get better, and then some injuries crept into our locker room. We battled the whole year, losing guys at various times in the year and some younger guys stepped up. But overall, it's adversity that makes you stronger. This was one of those years we faced a lot of adversity."

Coach Peter Laviolette has stressed to the Predators all season the importance of focusing on the task at hand and the work required to do so. But there was a turning point: It came March 13, when the Winnipeg Jets visited Bridgestone Arena.

The Predators won that game 5-4 in overtime. But it was clear to Laviolette something was not right, and Nashville needed a reset.

Video: WPG@NSH: Neal fires a laser in off iron for OT winner

"We didn't compete hard or execute hard," Laviolette said. "There were times where we weren't thinking about the system, we weren't thinking about having a man high or we weren't thinking about the puck decisions that we were making that might leave odd-man rushes. We just tried to tighten it up from there. But I do remember, there was a game that we just said, 'It's unacceptable, we're just leaving too much in front of our goaltender.' We worked at trying to tighten it up."

After the win against the Jets, the Predators were allowing 2.78 goals per game. In their final 13 regular-season games, the Predators allowed 28 goals, or 2.15 per game.

Through five playoff games, they have allowed six goals.

Nashville is built on its offensive firepower, a big reason why so many saw the Predators as legitimate contenders to win the Stanley Cup. But it took a commitment to defense to make that a reality, one they are showing at the most important time of the year.

"I think we finished the season really well," center Mike Fisher said, "and really I think there's a belief in our room that hopefully will continue to grow and grow throughout these playoffs. But we really believe in our group."

That belief has grown incrementally throughout a tough regular season littered with peaks and valleys, injuries and adjustments, growth and learning.

The Predators seemingly have arrived where everyone expected them to end up. They just took a more difficult route to get there.

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