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Stanley Cup Final

How Predators got to 2017 Stanley Cup Final

Home-ice advantage, P.K. Subban trade, overcoming injuries helped Nashville reach new heights

by Pete Jensen @NHLJensen / NHL.com Staff Writer

The Nashville Predators are going to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time, and that's music to the ears of their raucous home crowd.

The Predators' series-clinching 6-3 win against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final fittingly came on home ice, where Nashville is 7-1 during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Nashville has advanced to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Cup Final. Game 1 will be at PPG Paints Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).

 

[ RELATED: How Predators roster was built | Reasons Nashville defeated Anaheim ]

 

Nashville has become a prime example of how a non-traditional hockey market can evolve into a hockey-crazed spectacle. The Predators sold out every regular-season home game for the first time, and their gold-clad fans have provided the constant noise and intensity to help fuel their postseason run.

The Predators, who began play in 1998-99 as an expansion team, have had plenty of on-ice success, qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 10 of the past 13 seasons. However, they were not a legitimate Stanley Cup contender until they made two blockbuster trades in 2016.

Acquiring center Ryan Johansen from the Columbus Blue Jackets for defenseman Seth Jones on Jan. 6, 2016, gave Nashville the No. 1 center it had lacked. The trade that landed defenseman P.K. Subban from the Montreal Canadiens for former captain Shea Weber on June 29 gave the Predators arguably the deepest, most mobile defense in the NHL with Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. Though the Predators gave up a cornerstone player in each trade, their new roster has delivered.

Video: Nashville Predators - How they got there

The Predators' season hit plenty of bumps along the road to the Final. They lost eight of their first 11 games (3-5-3), goaltender Pekka Rinne struggled during the first half of the season, and their top two defensemen, Josi and Subban, missed 10 and 16 games, respectively, because of injuries. For much of the regular season, the Predators were a fringe playoff team in the Western Conference. They tied for the fewest points (94) among playoff qualifiers.

Coach Peter Laviolette, in his third season with the Predators, showed plenty of patience. He constantly tinkered with the lineup until he found the perfect combinations, and it paid off in the playoffs when the Predators swept the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference First Round, defeated the St. Louis Blues in six games in the second round and the Ducks in six games in the conference final.

The Predators also have shown the ability to overcome injuries in the postseason, a testament to their depth. Rookie forward Kevin Fiala broke his left femur in Game 1 against the Blues. Johansen sustained a season-ending injury to his left thigh in their loss to the Ducks in Game 4, the same game they lost captain Mike Fisher to an undisclosed injury. The Predators won two straight in the conference final without Johansen and Fisher.

Here are some of the highlights along the Predators' road to the Stanley Cup Final:

 

BEST MOMENT: Game 6 against the Ducks

Playing without their top two centers, the Predators needed an extraordinary effort to finish off the Ducks. Despite being heavily outshot (41-18) and dominated in faceoffs (won 38 percent), the Predators scored six goals on 18 shots, including a hat trick from center Colton Sissons. Johansen and Fisher were on the ice when the Predators celebrated with the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl as Western Conference champions. The Predators became the first team with the fewest points among playoff qualifiers to make the Stanley Cup Final.

Video: ANA@NSH, Gm6: Sissons completes hat trick for lead

 

TURNING POINT: Handling of Subban injury

Subban was playing through an upper-body injury in December, but the Predators decided to shut him down until he was fully healthy. He missed 16 games from Dec. 15 to Jan. 20, but went on to score 22 points (three goals, 19 assists) in his final 29 regular-season games. Josi's injury absence coincided with the end of Subban's, but the Predators survived the 22 games they played without one or both defensemen, going 12-7-3.

 

BEST MOVE THEY MADE: Subban trade

Though the Predators have made bold trades in the past, including the acquisition of forward Filip Forsberg from the Washington Capitals for forwards Martin Erat and Michael Latta on April 3, 2013, acquiring Subban in a trade for Weber made their ceiling higher than ever. Laviolette played Subban and Josi mostly on separate defense pairs and power-play units. This forced Subban, best known for his power-play prowess with the Canadiens, to become a more complete defenseman alongside Ekholm. That pair's shutdown ability is a huge reason the Predators contained the deep offenses of the Blackhawks, Blues and Ducks. The Predators have the highest-scoring group of defensemen this postseason (combined 42 points).

 

BEST MOVE THEY DIDN'T MAKE: Goalie change

Juuse Saros pushed Rinne for more playing time during the regular season, especially when he was 5-3-1 with a .952 save percentage in his first nine games through Jan. 19. The coaching staff established a competitive mentorship between the Finland natives but remained steadfast in giving Rinne the bulk of the workload, rather than allowing a goaltending controversy to become an issue. The Predators' faith in Rinne has paid off in the postseason.

Video: ANA@NSH, Gm6: Rinne kicks away Kesler's one-timer

 

SIGNATURE WIN (REGULAR SEASON): March 16 at Washington Capitals

The Predators were 2-7 in games that ended in overtime prior to their 5-4 OT win against the Winnipeg Jets on March 13, but Laviolette called his defense "terrible" after the game. The Predators responded three days later with another overtime win, 2-1 on the road against the NHL-leading Capitals. Rinne was dominant, forward Viktor Arvidsson scored in overtime and the Predators proved they could win tight, low-scoring games against anyone. These wins were part of a stretch where the Predators won seven of eight from March 11-27 (7-1-0). They also built enough confidence to go 2-1 in playoff overtime games.

 

SIGNATURE WIN (POSTSEASON): Game 3 against Blackhawks

The Predators shut out the Blackhawks in Games 1 and 2 on the road, so everyone was expecting a pushback from Chicago in Game 3 in Nashville. The Blackhawks took a 2-0 lead, but Forsberg scored two goals in the third to tie the game and Fiala scored in overtime to give the Predators a 3-2 win. The win was proof the Predators would not let any deficit or past playoff failures derail their postseason run, and also that Forsberg would emerge as an elite playoff goal scorer. Forsberg leads the Predators in goals (eight) and points (15) through 16 playoff games. 

Video: CHI@NSH, Gm3: Fiala beats Crawford for OT winner

 

MVP: Pekka Rinne

Prior to Game 6 against the Ducks, Rinne had the most NHL playoff wins (33) among active goalies to never make the Stanley Cup Final. Cross him off that list after he made 38 saves on 41 shots in Game 6. Rinne has a .941 playoff save percentage, the best in a single postseason of at least 15 games since the Los Angeles Kings' Jonathan Quick (.946 in 20 games) and the Phoenix Coyotes' Mike Smith (.944 in 16 games) in 2011-12. Rinne is 4-0 with a .960 save percentage in four games following a loss this postseason.

 

ROOKIE OF YEAR: Juuse Saros

Fiala stepped up in the first round against the Blackhawks, scoring two goals in four games. But Saros, despite not playing in the playoffs, was their most valuable rookie because he provided much-needed lifts throughout the regular season when the Predators were struggling, depleted or finding their defensive identity. Saros backstopped a 5-1 win against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in his season debut Oct. 22, a 4-0 shutout at the Blues on Dec. 30, a 5-2 win against the Capitals on Feb. 25 and sparked the Predators' best stretch of the regular season with a 3-1 road win at the San Jose Sharks on March 11.

 

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Viktor Arvidsson

After he had 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) in 56 regular-season games and two points (one goal, one assist) in 14 playoff games last season, Arvidsson tied for the Predators regular-season lead with 31 goals and 61 points in 80 games and has carried that production into the postseason with 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in 16 playoff games. His strong play led to the formation of the "JOFA line," with Johansen and Forsberg, which powered the Predators offense in the playoffs before Johansen's injury.

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