NASHVILLE -- The sounds of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrating their Stanley Cup championship out on the Bridgestone Arena ice permeated the despondent quiet in the Nashville Predators locker room, reinforcing the pain goaltender Pekka Rinne and his teammates were experiencing.
Over their two-month run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they had come to believe that they would be the ones skating around with the Cup when it was all over. Then the Penguins stole their dream ending with a Cup-winning 2-0 victory in Game 6 of the Final on Sunday.
"It's just an empty feeling," Rinne said. "Right after the game, it was really emotional. You don't think about that it might be over before the game and during the game. You believe in it, and then all the sudden when the final buzzer goes off, the season was [over]."
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It wasn't a sudden death for the Predators, but it was close to it with former Predators forward Patric Hornqvist breaking a 0-0 tie by banking the puck in off Rinne with 1:35 remaining in the third period. Carl Hagelin scored an empty-net goal with 13.6 seconds to clinch the Penguins' repeat championship and leave the Predators in disbelief.
"It [stinks]," defenseman Ryan Ellis said. "This isn't fun. You come all this way, you play an extra two months for really nothing."
In the coming days, Ellis and the other Predators will come to realize it wasn't all for nothing, but their raw emotions made it difficult to come to that conclusion less than 30 minutes after the game. At that point, the reality that they weren't going to Pittsburgh to play Game 7 on Wednesday was still setting in.
"It's hard to describe," defenseman P.K. Subban said. "When you dream about lifting the Stanley Cup as a young kid, and the dreams happen probably a million times for most of us, being that close, being two games away, 120 minutes away from lifting the Stanley Cup, it [stinks]."
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Though true that the Predators fell two wins short of winning the Stanley Cup for the first time, they had the most successful season in their 19-year history. They previously had never advanced beyond the second round in the playoffs.
They did it as the lowest seed, entering the playoffs with 94 points and sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks, who finished first in the Western Conference during the regular season with 109 points, in the first round. After that, they eliminated the St. Louis Blues in six games in the second round and the Anaheim Ducks in six games in the conference final.
Along the way, the Predators lost first-line center Ryan Johansen to season-ending surgery on his left thigh and left wing Kevin Fiala to a fractured femur, but they were undeterred. Coming along for the ride was a passionate fan base that made its presence felt inside and outside Bridgestone Arena throughout their run.
Before Sunday, the Predators had lost once at home this postseason and that came in overtime of Game 4 of the conference final against the Ducks. After losing the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final in Pittsburgh, they rebounded to win Games 3 and 4 at home with massive crowds filling the city for pregame concerts and watch parties.
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So, although they lost 6-0 in Game 5 in Pittsburgh on Thursday, they never doubted they would win Game 6. Until they didn't.
They thought they had a goal from Colton Sissons and a 1-0 lead 1:07 into the second period, but referee Kevin Pollock lost sight of the puck after Filip Forsberg's initial shot and blew his whistle before the puck went in.
Although they pressed and controlled play at times, they were unable to put another shot past Penguins goaltender Matt Murray, who didn't allow a goal in the final two games of the series.
"We all cared and we wanted to have an opportunity to play for the Cup in Game 7 in their building, and it just didn't happen for us," Subban said. "But I think for our team we've got to embrace the feeling right now and accept it and let it sink in, because ultimately that's what's going to put us back here again next year and put us in a position to win a Stanley Cup."
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It was more difficult for some other Predators to think about next season so soon after such a devastating loss. Rinne, 34, has played 508 regular-season games with the Predators since 2005 hoping to get this close to the Stanley Cup, only to see it slip from his grasp on an unlucky bounce.
"I don't want to sound selfish, but I was treating this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you never know when you're going to get another opportunity," Rinne said. "The only thing I was thinking about was that Cup and dreaming about that and playing for that. So right now, it's a tough one."