On April 3, 2004, the Nashville Predators were at a hotel in Denver, CO, anxiously awaiting the final results of a game that would determine their playoff futures. With their playoff destiny no longer in their hands, the team was rooting for a Vancouver Canucks victory over the Edmonton Oilers -- who with a win would have edged the Predators for the final playoff spot. The Canucks came through with the victory and the Predators celebrated their first ever playoff berth .. and a first round match up with the Detroit Red Wings.
Flash forward to exactly four years later, the Predators had an opportunity to lock up a playoff spot once based on the results of a game between the Oilers and the Canucks. This time it was an Edmonton victory that pushed the Predators to their fourth consecutive postseason berth. In grand fashion, the Red Wings would again be the Predators opponent in the quarterfinals.
The Predators of 2004 and the Predators of 2008 may have more in common than any previous incarnations of the club. Dan Hamhuis, one of seven players on the current roster to have been a part of the team’s first playoff outing, realizes the similarities between the two postseason campaigns.
“That year was a very similar situation,” Hamhuis said. “We got in on the last day and we weren’t a powerhouse like last season. Detroit is a similar team too, where they finished first place both times.”
The Predators of today seem to be a lot like the team from 2004—using its grit and speed to win games and not relying on its star power. Managing to slip into the eighth seed, the teams scratched and clawed their way into contention, seeming to defy all odds. It was the first playoff experience for many of the payers in 2004, including goaltender Chris Mason, who served as Tomas Vokun's back-up during the series.
“I just remember it was a pretty amazing experience,” Mason said. “It was my first experience in the NHL playoffs and especially for the hockey club to get in and be able to play Detroit. To be honest I think we were a little intimidated and we didn’t expect to win. We got in there the last few days of the season and I just remember the excitement. It didn’t feel real.”
Similarly, there are a few playoff rookies this year as well; one of those rookies is starting goaltender Dan Ellis, who had played in only one NHL game prior to this season. The parallels between the two clubs seem to be endless but the Predators do not plan on being ousted by Detroit this time. While the past and present Predators may be similar, this Predators team seems to have the upper hand.
“There is certainly a higher level of confidence in the room because guys have been there before and the coaches have been there before,” Hamhuis said. “We haven’t been successful in the playoffs yet; we haven’t been out of the first round. But we are trying new things and I think that we’ve got some good experience in this locker room too; we’ve got three guys that have won Stanley Cups and that is going to help us.”
The Predators have made it to the playoffs every season since 2004. The experience they gained has helped them play more confidently, intelligently, and gritty. Despite losing a tough series to the Red Wings in 6 games in 2004, the Predators did not come away empty handed; they gained valuable experience and insight to playing playoff hockey against Detroit.
“I think we learned that you have to respect Detroit as a hockey team, but you don’t have to kiss the ground that they walk on,” Mason said. “I just think we have to believe that we can beat this team. We know we are going to need everyone in our dressing room to beat these guys.
“It’s not that they are unbeatable; I just think it is going to be tough. They are the best team in the league but I think we play them really well. If we get everything going, it is going to be a good series.”
The key to winning the series seems to be belief—belief in themselves, belief in the coaching staff, and belief in the team’s ability to win. Without belief, the fans could see a repeat of four years ago. But fortunately, lack of belief doesn’t seem to be a problem for this Predators team.
“It was a tough series,” Martin Erat
said of the Detroit match up in 2004. “But we took lessons from that and we hope to use them this year. Our goal is to win the series. We just need to keep going and don’t look back.”
“I think this team believes it can win,” added Mason. “Maybe before we were just happy to get in the playoffs; we were happy to get into the playoffs this year too, but I think this team really believes it can win.”