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Diamond Cuts: Youthful Experience

by Jim Diamond / Nashville Predators
Despite being one of the NHL’s youngest teams, the Nashville Predators have plenty of experience when it comes to the pressure situations of the postseason

As the Predators head down the stretch of the 2011-12 regular season, they are eying their seventh Stanley Cup Playoff berth in their last eight seasons. As one of the NHL’s youngest teams this season, it would be easy to mistake the team’s youth for inexperience. While the team may be somewhat light on playoff experience at the NHL level, most of the Predator players have been involved in high-pressure tournaments and games for many years.

In their first six playoff series, the Predators have played a total of 40 postseason games. Five players on the current roster have played in at least 30 of the team’s playoff contests. David Legwand, Nashville’s first-ever draft selection, tops the list of playoff games played with 37. Martin Erat and Jordin Tootoo are right behind Legwand, each with 36 playoff appearances. Predators captain Shea Weber and center Jerred Smithson round out the list of players who have appeared in at least 30 of the franchise’s playoff games with 33 and 31 respectively.

Weber and defensive partner Ryan Suter are the cornerstones of the Nashville blue line. While their professional careers have been spent together, they were on opposite sides in 2010 when Weber’s Team Canada squared off against Suter’s Team USA in the Gold Medal Game of the Vancouver Olympics. Weber and Team Canada eventually prevailed in overtime of the winner take all game.

As teams battle just to qualify for the postseason, regular-season games in February, March and early April frequently take on the characteristics of playoff games. This season’s rookies are experiencing the run-up in the intensity of games as the regular season winds to a close. Head Coach Barry Trotz thinks that despite their youth, his younger players should be just fine.

“For a young group, they are a pretty mature group,” Trotz said. “You don’t have to reel them in all the time. They understand the importance of the games. They understand the importance of the details and the preparation. There is a time to work and a time to play and don’t get them mixed up. This group doesn’t. They know when it is time to relax and they know when it is time to bring it every night. That is a good attribute. They are great pros.”

Part of the maturation process of the younger players can be attributed to the strong leadership group that sets the tone for the entire team. That leadership group received a major addition last February.

When General Manager David Poile acquired Mike Fisher prior to last season’s trade deadline, he added a player with an impressive playoff resume developed during his years with the Ottawa Senators. Before his Feb. 10, 2011 trade to Nashville, Fisher had appeared in 75 career NHL playoff games. After playing in all 12 of Nashville’s postseason games in 2011, his 87 playoff games are by far the most on the team.

While with Ottawa, Fisher advanced to the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals. Fisher is known as one of the league’s best two-way forwards, and those skills were certainly on display with the Senators that season. He finished second among all players that playoff season with 73 hits. At the other end of the ice, he had five goals and five assists in 20 playoff games, both still stand as career playoff highs for the Peterborough, Ont., native.

Last season, Fisher posted two goals and one assist in the playoffs. Tangible statistics like goals and assists are easy to measure, but Fisher’s biggest impact on the team may have been showing some of the younger players the difference between regular season hockey and playoff hockey.

Seeing his first NHL playoff action last season, Matt Halischuk brought his flair for the dramatic goal into Nashville’s Western Conference Semifinal round matchup with the Vancouver Canucks. In Game 2 of the series in Vancouver, it was Halischuk’s double-overtime game-winning goal that sent the series back to Nashville tied at one game each.

Overtime heroics were not new to Halischuk. In the 2008 World Junior Championships, Halischuk’s overtime goal in the Gold Medal Game gave Team Canada a 3-2 victory over Team Sweden.

That same year, Halischuk and Predator teammate Nick Spaling played on the top line of the Kitchener Rangers team that won the Ontario Hockey League championship and advanced to the Memorial Cup.

Spaling has appeared in all 18 of the Predators playoff games the last two seasons. Having been a part of the first Nashville team to win a playoff series last season, Trotz is looking for both he and Halischuk to build upon their achievements the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs.

“We got a great experience last year,” Trotz said. “A lot of our young guys are still young guys, but they are still a little bit veteran-savvy; guys like Spaling and Halischuk and people like that.”

While some of this current group of Predators has yet to appear in an NHL playoff game, many of them have played in some big games and tournaments over their young careers.

Rookie defensemen Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis started the season with the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League, but since being recalled, the blueliners have played important minutes. Prior to turning pro, both players had decorated junior and international careers.

At 21 years old, Josi has already represented his native Switzerland at two World Championship tournaments. In his final season In Europe in 2009-10, Josi led SC Bern of the Swiss League to both the regular and postseason titles. In his first season in North America last season with Milwaukee, he had six goals and 34 assists in 69 regular-season games and followed up that performance with one goal and six assists in 13 playoff games.

For his part, Ellis wants to focus on the remainder of the regular season before looking ahead to what would be his first NHL postseason action.

“Right now we are just gearing up and trying to make those playoffs and put ourselves in a good position,” he said. “That’s our main focus and we are taking it game by game.”

As a junior, Ellis won two Memorial Cups with the Windsor Spitfires. Individually, he won a lengthy list of personal awards, most notably the 2011 Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year as well as the CHL’s Defenseman of the Year.

Ellis represented Canada at the World Junior Championships three consecutive seasons, just the seventh player to ever do so. With a gold and two silvers, he is one of four Canadians to ever win three World Junior medals.

“You use those kinds of things more toward the playoffs,” Ellis said. “Those experiences are more like a playoff atmospheres. We are a pretty driven bunch to succeed. We have some great leadership and some good young guys just coming in. We are having fun but playing hard. It is a good mixture.”

After two seasons at the University of Wisconsin, Craig Smith made the Nashville roster right out of training camp. He played just 41 games in each of his two seasons playing for his hometown school in Madison, the jump to the NHL’s 82-game regular season is a big change for Smith.

“It is going to be a test for them,” Trotz said. “It is going to be a test for Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi with just the number of games and the intensity of them. A guy like Craig Smith, he has already played more games than he has in college. It will be a little bit of a test, but we have been really conscious of giving people the rest and recovery time to be successful in this league.”

As a freshman at Wisconsin, Smith and the Badgers advanced to the championship game of the NCAA’s Frozen Four, so playing in high-pressure situations is nothing new for the speedy center.

In his first season of professional hockey in 2010-11, forward Gabriel Bourque had a strong campaign with the Admirals. In 13 Calder Cup playoff games, Bourque’s seven goals and 13 points led all Milwaukee players.

Since earning his first NHL call-up this season, Bourque’s hard-nosed game has fit in well with the Predators. Despite being a rookie, he notices how the games change as the season progresses.

“The closer you get to the playoffs, the more intense you have to be,” he said. “The last part of the season is always the most exciting part, so I am pretty excited and looking forward to it.”

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