Sixteen teams start the NHL’s postseason with the dream of winning four playoff series and then skating around with the Stanley Cup held high. Of those 16 teams, 15 of them will come up short of fulfilling that goal. Making their fifth playoff appearance in their last six seasons, the Predators and their fans hope that in early June, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will be handing the Cup over to Captain Jason Arnott to start that celebratory skate.
Making the jump from a team that has not yet won a playoff round to winning the Stanley Cup is a large one, but everyone in the organization realizes that while making the playoffs is an accomplishment, the time to move forward is now.
“It is good to be consistent, and it’s good to be competitive,” Nashville President of Hockey Operations/General Manager David Poile said. “We feel as a franchise that it is time to take the next step, and that is to win in the playoffs.”
Only seven other teams have reached the postseason five or more times in the last six seasons.
The Predators feel that a lot of what happened in the regular season has set them up for success in the postseason. After struggling out of the gate with a 3-6-1 record in their first 10 games, the team quickly realized that if it did not take a playoff-style mentality to their game, there is a good chance they would finish outside of the top eight teams in the Western Conference standings. And respond they did, winning 11 of their next 13 games to set them on a course to reclaim a postseason spot after a one-year hiatus.
Finishing with a record of 47-29-6, the Predators recorded their third 100 point season in franchise history. Even more impressive than the overall record was Nashville’s road performance this season. With a 23-15-3 record away from Bridgestone Arena, the team equaled a franchise best. Since Nashville is the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference, a strong road performance is essential to playoff success.
“This team has a good feel about it,” Head Coach Barry Trotz said. “It doesn’t really matter if we play at home or on the road. We play the same game, so I don’t think it will affect us a whole lot.”
Nashville’s impressive 28-9-6 record in games decided by one goal in the regular season is something the team feels benefits them, as playoff games are frequently decided by just one marker.
“I think it is as close as we can come to duplicating how it is going to be in the playoffs,” forward Steve Sullivan said. “We need to play strong defensively and only take our chances when they are there. Make them make some mistakes and capitalize on them when they are there.”
The Predators’ top defensive duo of Shea Weber
and Ryan Suter
have more than just the experience of playing in regular season one-goal games to pull from this postseason, as they were on opposite sides of the most famous one-goal game played in North America this season. Weber’s Team Canada defeated Suter and Team USA 3-2 in overtime of the Gold Medal Game in February’s Winter Olympics.
“There are never usually any blowouts in the playoffs, it rarely happens,” Weber said. “You have to be prepared to play in those pressure situations.”
As the only current Predator to have won the Stanley Cup, Arnott knows both the feeling of elation at winning hockey’s ultimate prize as well as the feeling of bitter disappointment of early playoff exits. Over the years, one thing that Arnott has learned is the fact that what a team does in the regular season does not necessarily translate into the playoffs.
“I learned that in New Jersey when I first got there,” Arnott said. “We were the top seed and we lost to the No. 8 seed two years in a row.”
In both the 1998 and 1999 playoffs, New Jersey was the top seed in the Eastern Conference. But in both years, the Devils were dismissed in the conference quarterfinal round, first by the Ottawa Senators and then the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Devils turned their playoff fortunes around in the 2000 season though, winning the Stanley Cup on Arnott’s double-overtime goal in Game Six of the Finals against Dallas.
In his third playoff appearance with the Predators, Arnott hopes that history repeats itself for a team that has yet to advance past the quarterfinal round.
“When we ended up winning the Cup, we got that monkey off of our back after the first round,” he said. “There was more of a sigh of relief.”
A veteran of more than 100 playoff games, the captain likes the balance of youth and experience on this Predator team.
“You have a good mix,” he said. “When you get a bunch of young guys out there who haven’t been in the playoffs, they are excited to be out there. Not that I’m not, but they have that ‘wow, this is the playoffs, this is a different level, different atmosphere.’ We have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. That’s why we play this game.”
The Predators playoff rookies are excited to be taking part in their first NHL playoff experience, but are aware of the increased stakes this time of year.
“It is a new season and there is a lot of pressure,” goaltender Pekka Rinne
said. “There are a lot of tight games. Every minute and every play matters.”
At 29 years of age, Joel Ward is older than the average player making his playoff debut, and it means a lot for Nashville’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, given for perseverance and dedication to the sport.
“Anytime you get in this position, I don’t care how old you are or where you come from, you have to be excited,” Ward said. “I will have a lot of people, friends and family back home, watching so it is going to be an exciting time. You always wish you have that chance to give yourself an opportunity to hoist the Cup.”
One year removed from winning an NCAA National Championship with Boston University, rookie Colin Wilson
knows the NHL playoff experience is much different.
“I haven’t played a seven-game series since I was about 14-years-old, so it is going to be good getting back into that format as opposed to the one-game elimination format in college,” he said.
For the Predators, there is a special feeling about this playoff experience, and it may just be the subtle distinction between teams that play for each other as opposed to those who just play alongside each other.
”I think what’s more important than anything is the quality of personnel in our locker room and our staff,” Jerred Smithson said. “Everyone wants to win for each other, and that makes it special.”
Trotz fondly recalls the Tennessee Titans run to the 2000 Super Bowl and what it did to the city of Nashville. He knows a long playoff run for the Predators will produce a similar result.
“I would love to see this city if we could go deep into the playoffs,” Trotz said. “This could be a really energized place.”