NASHVILLE -- Getting eliminated in the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup champion -- especially in the first round -- is no reason to be ashamed.
But for the Nashville Predators, losing last spring in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks has been a tough memory to shake. For those who may have forgotten, Nashville was no mere speed bump on the Blackhawks' path to glory.
They were seconds away from returning home for Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead when they surrendered a shorthanded goal to Patrick Kane, who tied it with 13.6 seconds left in regulation and his goaltender pulled. The Preds then failed to score in overtime on the continuing major power play, and Marian Hossa, the player penalized for boarding Nashville's Dan Hamhuis, came out of the box and scored the game-winner. Chicago finished the series in a wild Game 6 with a 5-3 win that included an empty-net goal.
Rather than feel sorry for themselves, the Predators have used those memories to get off to the best start in the NHL at 5-0-3.
Cody Franson (Getty Images)
"Obviously it is (motivation), especially after it happens and into the summer, into your training," Predators captain Shea Weber said. "Obviously, that's something you can't forget and you never want it to happen again, so we're trying to move past that and get better from it."
Making the start even more impressive is what Nashville has had to overcome to get there. Starting goalie Pekka Rinne got injured in the season opener, yielding way for three games to rookie Anders Lindback, who entered the season with no prior NHL experience. Nashville's top center, Matthew Lombardi, has missed the last six games with a concussion, and defenseman Ryan Suter, the team's leader in time on ice per game last season, has missed the last three games with an injury.
All of this comes in an offseason in which Nashville elected to get younger, trading captain Jason Arnott to New Jersey and allowing Hamhuis, a 20-minute-per-night defenseman, to depart via free agency to Vancouver.
"I think we've had a couple of changes in the offseason, so we've got a new second goalie, which has been a terrific story there -- that he's already played in four games and has three wins," general manager David Poile said. "Losing Dan Hamhuis changes our defense around a little bit. It gives other guys a chance to play a more important role. Ryan Suter's out another week and that's a huge loss. Up front, probably our biggest signing was Matthew Lombardi and he's played only one-and-a-half games and he's got a concussion, so we don't know when he's coming back.
"So there's a little bit of uncertainty with where we are and it's still a young season, but a lot of good signs. Different people have made a contribution already in different games. It's not like we're relying on one player or one line. Everyone's been able to come in and do something positive -- both your goaltenders -- so for eight games it's been a great story." Nashville has been outshot in five of its eight games, including the last four. Nonetheless, Lindback and Rinne have posted save percentages of .925 and .955, respectively. They have led to the Predators' ranking third in the League in goals-against per game (2.12).
Offensively, the different contributions have come across the board. The Preds entered Thursday's game against the Blues with two players with 6 points (Steve Sullivan and the unlikely Cal O'Reilly), four with 5 points, three with 4 and four with 3 points.
"I think last game all four lines scored," said right wing Patric Hornqvist, whose 30 goals last season were nine more than the next highest player on the team. "Everybody works hard for each other and we have a such a tight group in here so, yeah, keep rolling."
In addition to the talk about the bitter taste of how the playoffs ended, the subject of the Preds' chemistry and valuable experience gained last season by young players like O'Reilly and Colin Wilson comes up a lot.
"Just the fact that we didn't like the way we ended last year, I think you gain a lot of experience every year and the young guys are still really young, but there was a lot of experience," veteran forward J-P Dumont said, "and we came to training camp with just one goal in mind and that's to have a really good season and get ready for the playoffs and so far we all play for each other.
"We know we don't have the big guy who can score 50 goals, but, as a team, we know we can score a lot of goals so, all together, it's definitely a lot of fun."
Poile said the team's start is a good news/bad news situation.
"It's a line, but it's just so true -- how you start the season gives you a great advantage of getting in the playoffs," he said. "We saw that with Colorado last year. … We're excited about our start. We haven't had a regulation loss in eight games. That's the good news. But the reality is that seven of our eight games have been one-goal games. They're nail-biters right to the end. Three have been in overtime. So it's really close."
And for the Predators, those close games are almost always how it is. Eric Brewer, captain of Nashville's Central Division rival St. Louis, said he thinks that despite the changes, the Preds are not much different from last season's 100-point team.
"I think the Predators have always had no confusion with their team identity," he said. "They've always been a team that played a certain way and coach (Barry) Trotz has been around a long time and coached the team. They have good young players and drafted their players according to how they want their big team to play.
"Clearly, they've done a very, very good job with that. Yeah, there's no surprises. They're a hard-working team, a detailed team. It's what it is."
So with the exception of the 2006-07 season, when the Preds had Peter Forsberg and Paul Kariya, the national spotlight often is focused elsewhere and the expectations are low -- except for within the room.
"Since I've been here, except maybe my first two years when we had some big names, we always have been on the bottom -- everyone thought we're never going to make the playoffs," said Dumont, who arrived to start that 2006-07 season. "It's always nice to be the underdog, but we know in the locker room what we're capable of and when we play as a team, we're a tough team to beat."