It's time to dream big, Nashville Predators fans. If not now, when?
The Predators' dismantling of the Chicago Blackhawks in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs - which culminated in Thursday's 4-1 victory at Bridgestone Arena - is more than enough evidence Nashville can beat any remaining team in the postseason.
This wasn't just any playoff opponent the Preds sent packing.
This was a 50-win Chicago team that had piled up 109 points during the regular season, the second-highest total in the long history of this Original Six franchise. On the way to claiming the Western Conference's top seed this season, the Blackhawks had won 24 road games, the second-highest total in the NHL.
Heading into this series, there was every logical reason to believe the Blackhawks would triumph.
In addition to all the gaudy numbers Chicago had compiled this season, the Blackhawks had captured four of five meetings with the eighth-seeded Predators, outscoring Nashville 20-13 in those contests.
Video: CHI@NSH, Gm4: Preds advance, shake hands with Hawks
Perhaps what should have been examined more closely, however, is the fact that four of the five contests between the Predators and Blackhawks had been played in the first 40 games of the season, which saw Nashville post a 17-16-7 record.
The Preds were 24-13-5 over the season's final 42 games, thanks in part to better health and chemistry among the team's top four defensemen.
"I think in the last half of the season, we really came into our own," Predators Captain Mike Fisher said. "We became a lot better team than people thought."
Still, how was it that the Preds not only defeated - but dominated - the favored Blackhawks, shutting them out twice and outscoring them 13-3 in four games?
Here are a few of the reasons:
Strong starts - The Preds had their share of difficulties getting started during the regular season, as they were outscored in first periods, 67-55, and led after the first period in just 22 of 82 contests. But in four games against the Blackhawks, the Predators didn't allow a single first-period goal. Nashville scored first in three of the four games against Chicago, forcing the Blackhawks to chase the game and take more chances.
Said Chicago Captain Jonathan Toews: "We would get behind, start forcing offense and it seemed like every defensive breakdown or turnover we would have, they would come back our way. It was just an uphill battle."
Video: CHI@NSH, Gm3: Rinne uses his glove to deny Schmaltz
Prime-time Pekka - Preds goalie Pekka Rinne put together a spectacular series, stopping 123-of-126 Chicago shots and compiling a save percentage of .976. It was a continuation of Rinne's play down the stretch, as he's now surrendered just 17 goals in his last 13 games.
In fact, Rinne became just the fourth goaltender in League history with four wins in a series and a goals-against average 0.70 or less since 1967-68. The veteran netminder shut out Chicago in the first two games of the series, giving the underdog Preds momentum and confidence.
"The First Round is when every team faces the most doubt," NBCSN and TSN broadcaster Gord Miller said Thursday at Bridgestone Arena. "I think walking into Chicago and winning those first two games by shutout really was a franchise-defining couple of days for Nashville."
Stuffing the stars - In the five regular-season games between these teams, forwards Patrick Kane and Toews - the two cogs that have long powered Chicago's engine - combined for 12 points (five goals, seven assists). But hounded by the Preds' top four defensemen as well as a combination of swift-skating Nashville lines, Kane and Toews combined for just four points (two goals, two assists) in the four-game sweep.
Video: CHI@NSH, Gm3: Forsberg nets second goal to tie game
Formidable first line - The Preds' top line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson was simply unstoppable, despite the fact Toews - one of the League's top two-way players - often led his line against the group.
Nashville's top trio dominated puck possession during the series and piled up 15 points in four games - six for Johansen (one goal, five assists), five for Forsberg (two goals, three assists) and four for Arvidsson (two goals, two assists).
"Not many people (believed) that we'd beat Chicago," Fisher said. "We really believed it. Sometimes you just say it, but I feel like we really did."
So what's next for the Predators, who - unlike last year - will have a handful of days off before beginning their Second Round series?
The team's most likely upcoming opponent is St. Louis, a gritty Central division foe that's always played tight games against the Preds. Should Nashville advance, a potential future foe is Anaheim, a nasty, physical squad that would provide quite a challenge.
"I promise you this - the next round round will be harder than this one," Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette said. "That's not to disrespect (Chicago). It's just the way the playoffs go. It gets harder in the Second Round, gets harder than that in the Third Round and when you're in the Finals, it's lightning speed and ridiculously hard."
Still, what Predators supporter doesn't feel optimistic today, the day after Nashville swept a Blackhawks team many predicted would win the Cup this year?
Dare to dream big, Preds fans. This could be quite a ride.