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Preds Players Sense New Belief, Fresh Outlook Following 2020-21 Season

Nashville's Top Players Discuss Season That Was, Look Ahead to Bright Future for Organization

by Brooks Bratten @brooksbratten / Senior Communications & Content Coordinator

Three months ago, these conversations were shaping up to carry a much different tone.

We'll never know exactly what would have happened if the Predators continued on their early-season pace that saw them out of the playoff picture. Who might have been dealt at the Trade Deadline, what other moves might have been made, what the future would have looked like - everything seemed to be up for debate, and none of the outlooks were great.

But then, something changed.

The turnaround has been well documented by now - the Preds went 20-7-1 in their final 28 games after having a fewer than two-percent chance at a playoff berth midway through the month of March. Since March 15, Nashville's 20 wins were tied for the third most in the NHL, a feat that was accomplished despite 199 total man-games lost in that time span.

That run was good enough to slot the Predators into the fourth spot in the Central Division and earn a first-round date with the high-powered Carolina Hurricanes, a series that needed six games to decide after the final four outings went to overtime.

Compared to where the Preds were three months earlier, Wednesday's conversations with many of Nashville's top players could have gone much differently. Instead, words like "excited," "confidence" and "proud" were used often when describing the state of the team and what's to come.

Video: Johansen is proud of Preds' rebound to make playoffs

Preds forward Matt Duchene acknowledged all of the optimism may "sound funny" considering a first-round exit that came just one week ago to put an end to the one-of-a-kind season, but Nashville's leaders wouldn't say it if they didn't believe it.

"There's a different energy in the room, and I'm really proud of the team," Predators Captain Roman Josi said Wednesday during his final media availability leading into the offseason. "The way we battled this year, the way we overcame our slow start; there's a new belief in our room that we can win, and I think we showed it the last couple of games down the stretch in the regular season and playoffs. I'm proud of the work we put in, and as a captain, it's definitely fun to see your team come together like that."

Video: Josi says coach Hynes helped Preds turn things around

"The first thing that just comes to my mind is how proud I was of our group," Preds centerman Ryan Johansen said. "The hole we dug out of, at one point there was a two-percent chance of us making the playoffs, and we found a way to do it and played against a very good hockey club in the first round. We were very close to coming out of that series, and our feeling is it could have gone either way. Obviously, they beat us, and they found a way to do it, and the upsetting part of it all and not making it to the next round, we're still proud of what we accomplished."

A resurgence of that magnitude would have been impressive in any circumstance, but the fact the Predators did so in a season that also included daily COVID tests, strict protocols and a general disruption to everyday life and normal routines is no small feat.

As goaltender Pekka Rinne said Wednesday, the Preds weren't about to complain about the restrictions - they're just happy they got to play hockey - but a physically taxing schedule combined with the necessity for isolation more than ever before must be mentioned when looking back at the past five months.

Video: Ekholm is again optimistic about Preds' future

"Our guys and the leaders and the coaches and the management, I mean, we never stopped believing and it paid dividends in the end," Preds defenseman Mattias Ekholm said. "Maybe [it took] a lot longer than we would have liked to turn it around, but in that regard, I feel like I've learned a lot, personally, as a player. It doesn't matter how you start the year; you've just got to keep battling. The off-ice side of it, it's been challenging to be in the hotel room the whole time and not be able to go out initially at the start, but it's been a pandemic and we've all had to adjust. I'm still proud of the way we finished the year, and we got through it, so to speak, and without too many flaws when it comes to health to our team guys and then players and management. It's been a learning year, but it's been a fun year as well."

What exactly are the lessons the Preds will take with them as they head into an offseason that will resemble some much-needed normalcy? For one, Nashville's personnel want no part of having to climb their way back up the standings due to a slow start.

A full season of 82 games is expected once the puck drops again in October, and with their confidence back again, the Predators know how they want to play from the beginning.  

Video: Forsberg says he'd like to re-sign with the Preds

"We can't put ourselves in that hole," Preds forward Filip Forsberg said. "We found the way that this team had to play, we made some adjustments and we found our way to the playoffs. We just have to keep that, continue with that and add a little spice on top of that. We played arguably one of the best teams in the League to six games, four of them went to overtime and…every game was close, and we proved ourselves every game… I've got a really good feeling, but at the same time, there's things that we need to remember why we got successful and bring that energy and bring that effort all summer to prepare for next season."

Duchene, who scored the double-overtime winner in Game 3 for the Preds, also reiterated his belief in the team he signed with as a free agent two summers ago, and he plans on getting back to the level he expects of himself to help his club continue to build off of their newfound momentum.

Video: Duchene believes Preds are closer to Cup than before

"We were right there when I signed here, and I think we're even closer now," Duchene said of contending for a Stanley Cup. "I believe even more now in our core group than I even did when I signed here…so I'm excited for the future here. I love the boys, and we became a really tight group this year. That was something that maybe lacked in the past year where we were tight but not as tight as we needed to be, and I think we came together through the adversity… We're a team that's elite, and I still think we could have achieved more this year. I think we could have challenged for the division and not been scraping in the playoffs, but at the end of the day, sometimes you've got to play the card you're dealt. So, I'm really proud of the guys, I'm proud to be here and I want to spend the rest of my career here. That's my outlook, and I'll do everything in my power to do that and help this team hopefully win a Stanley Cup in the near future."

The 2020-21 campaign did not conclude with the Predators achieving their ultimate goal, but because of what they were able to accomplish and the identity they found once more, that goal seems just as attainable as it ever has.

The season may pass, but the dream doesn't die.

"If we can come in with a great start and gel like we did these last 25 games, that'll bring a lot of confidence and a lot of belief," Johansen said. "We played the team with the second-best record in the NHL going into playoffs, and we were close. We're very close, so I don't think there's too much that we need to really change. We've just got to find a way to get a little bit better each and every day and come in and have some fun next year."

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