Mike Fisher has always been confident in his hockey club.
In his first season as captain of the Nashville Predators, the 36-year-old centerman had to answer tough questions in the first few weeks of the season after the team got off to a rocky start despite high preseason expectations.
Were they actually as good as everyone thought they would be? Could they find a way to reach the postseason for the third consecutive try?
Fisher never wavered in his belief, and in the end, he was right. So now, with the Chicago Blackhawks awaiting the Preds and a Round One series set to begin on Thursday at the United Center, Fisher still has that same confidence. And while the Predators carry respect for their opponent, they also know what they have inside their own room.
"We're all excited about where we've [gone] this year," Fisher said. "We feel like we've improved a lot as a team. We know we're facing a great hockey team; there's no question, but we feel confident in our group."
This will be the third occasion the two clubs have gotten together in the postseason, the first two meetings coming in 2010 and then 2015. Chicago emerged victorious in both of those appearances, leaving the Predators with thoughts of "what if?"
Goaltender Pekka Rinne, one of two players on the current Nashville roster to have seen time in both of those previous series, has started all 12 games against Chicago in Predators franchise history. Rinne sees plenty to like about the matchup and doesn't mind playing a bit of an underdog role.
"I'm not going to start saying that we're better in every aspect of the game," Rinne said. "We have a lot of respect for that team, but they play a fast game and I feel like we have a fast team. They like to possess the puck a lot, hold onto pucks, but then again, I feel like we have a lot of skill in this locker room and we can match in that area. There are obviously a lot of things it comes down to - goaltending, special teams - everything has to be clicking come playoff time."
For players like Rinne and Fisher, who realize they are on the back half of their NHL careers, chances in the postseason are relished, knowing in the back of their minds that opportunities to compete for the ultimate prize are dwindling. From that angle, the pressure and desire to perform at this time of the year drives them as much as anything.
"Getting older, you realize that you don't always get these opportunities and you never know when it's your last time," Rinne said. "I'm really trying to prepare myself, and at the same time, I'm just one piece of the puzzle. As a team, I think we are ready for [the challenge]."
The Predators also figure that if they're to have a long run in the postseason for a chance at playing past the second round for the first time, they were going to have to see Chicago eventually. That chance is presented from the start, and the Preds won't have to wait to see what they're made of.
"Facing a team like Chicago first, it's going to have to bring the best out of us as a group," Fisher said. "We know they're a great hockey team, and they finished first for a reason, so I think we're going to prepare. We know we're going to be at our best, and I think that's a good thing. That's going to really bring out the best in us as a group, and that's something you always look forward to. We're going to have to face the best right away, and I think that's great."