Luke Kunin scored twice, and Juuse Saros made 21 saves to lead the Nashville Predators to a 3-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes to clinch their spot in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday night at Bridgestone Arena. Nashville's victory is their first in seven tries against their first-round postseason opponent - the Hurricanes - on the campaign, and the triumph couldn't have come at a better time.
After being 10 points out of a playoff spot two months ago, the Predators have clinched a postseason berth for the seventh consecutive season - tied for the second-longest active run in the NHL - and on this night, there's no better feeling than being playoff bound.
Video: Kunin, Josi and Ellis talk clinching playoff berth
"This one has a little bit more meaning for the guys in the room, for management, for the coaches," Preds Associate Captain Ryan Ellis said. "We've had our ups and downs and a tough start to the year kind of on the outside looking in, and the guys, the coaches, management, everyone, we still believed and we buried our heads and went to work. To do it against the the team that we're playing [in the first round]...it means a lot to this group."
Video: Coach Hynes discusses clinching a playoff berth
"I'm just really proud of the guys, and we definitely earned it the hard way," Preds Captain Roman Josi said. "We worked extremely hard to get a playoff spot, and just looking back at the last 20 games, it felt like every game was so important. We were in the playoff race every game, and everyone in our locker room played really well. I'm proud of the team. It took a lot of hard work, so it's exciting. We're definitely enjoying this one tonight."
The two clubs were unable to beat either goaltender - Saros or Alex Nedjelkovic - in the opening 20 minutes, but in the second stanza, Bridgestone Arena really came alive.
Video: CAR@NSH: Kunin slips backhander past Nedeljkovic
After sustained pressure from the Preds midway through the period, the home crowd responded with a trademark standing ovation during the subsequent media timeout. As the cheers have often provided over the years, the Predators got an extra boost from their faithful, and just seconds after the commercial break, Mikael Granlund found Kunin streaking through the Carolina zone. The winger then deposited his eighth tally of the season to give Nashville the all-important first goal and a 1-0 lead after two periods of play.
"The crowd was unbelievable, all game," Kunin said. "You know we're feeding off that, and that's pretty cool to play in front of, and it's not even full. They're great, and we're getting a lot of energy, and then a great play by Granny there, just lucky to get that one in."
"I can't tell you how many times the crowd did that [over the years] and we score right after," Josi said. "It's amazing how much of a boost it gives us, and we were talking about it the other day after the [1-0 overtime win at home] Dallas game. The whole game, and after we won, it was so loud in there, and it's not even 100 percent full. It's just really cool to have our fans back. It's been really fun, and tonight, again that TV timeout, I've seen it happen so many times and we score right after, so it's very cool."
Video: CAR@NSH: Kunin nets his second goal on the break
Kunin nearly brought the house down with his second of the night fewer than eight minutes into the final frame, and after Carolina closed the gap to within one, Erik Haula added an empty-netter that released an entire arena full of nervous energy into a frenzy.
"I speak for all the guys in here - we missed the fans," Ellis said. "In sports and hockey, it just wasn't the same, and the more we get back, the louder it gets. It's amazing what their chants and what their energy can really do for this team, and just watching that empty-net goal go in, it was honestly a special moment. It felt so good and felt good to share it with the fans. It's something we worked so hard for this year as a group, and to be able to do that with them, it was awesome."
Video: CAR@NSH: Haula scores empty-net goal
That empty-net tally also allowed Nashville's bench boss a moment to appreciate what his team has just accomplished: never giving up on themselves and finding a way to get back into the postseason against all odds.
"When that empty-net [goal] goes in, you do think about the hard work that went in," Preds Head Coach John Hynes said. "It's hard to get in the playoffs. Every team starts the season with the expectation that they want to make the playoffs, but when you go through the trials and tribulations of a season, whether it's good losses, bad losses, good performances, bad performances, injuries, hard schedule, overcoming adversity, it's hard to get into the playoffs. I'm just really proud of the guys that we won our way into the playoffs. We didn't count on someone else to lose or get in that way, we had to win a hockey game against a really good hockey team, and we had to show up tonight."
The Preds did just that, and now they'll face Carolina one more time to close out the 2020-21 regular season on Monday, one final tuneup before the real fun starts.
For everything this Predators team has gone through over the past four months, Saturday's victory seemed to make it all worth it. Their story isn't done yet, and they're sure having quite a time writing it night by night.
"I really give a lot of credit to the players," Hynes said. "It's been a tough season. We didn't get off to the start that we wanted…and these guys have really stepped up, have really committed to playing the game the way that you have to play to win… We can always talk about competitive effort and structure and attention to detail, and to the players' credit, they've done it. We won because we believe in the guys that we have. We feel like we've got a really good hockey team, but they're the guys that have to commit to do it… All the credit goes to those guys for the commitment level and dedication level that they've had throughout this process."
Video: Lunin's two goals propel Predators to playoff berth
The Predators (14) are tied for the second-most postseason appearances among all NHL clubs since 2004, when they reached the playoffs for the first time. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins (15, including 2021) have more postseason appearances in that span, while the San Jose Sharks also have 14.
The Predators' run of seven consecutive postseason appearances is tied for the second-longest active run in the NHL behind the Penguins (15; 2007-2021); the Washington Capitals also have reached the playoffs each year since 2015.
Among franchises to join the NHL in the 1990s or later, only the Sharks (21), Ottawa Senators (16) and Anaheim Ducks (14) have as many playoff appearances as Nashville - all in at least five more campaigns.
Preds defenseman Matt Benning skated in his 300th NHL game in the win.
Forward Viktor Arvidsson did not play on Saturday and remains day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Nick Cousins, Rocco Grimaldi, Dante Fabbro and Erik Gudbranson were among the scratches for Nashville on Saturday.
The Predators will conclude the 2020-21 regular season on Monday night when they host Carolina once more at Bridgestone Arena before the Stanley Cup Playoffs arrive next weekend. Stay tuned to NashvillePredators.com in the coming days for more information on all things playoffs, and click here for ticket information. The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs begin May 15.