Last year at this time, the Nashville Predators were trying to figure out how to win four playoff games, much less 16. The Predators had gone one-and-done in their first five postseasons, leaving a bitter taste in their mouth and a big monkey on their back. But after last spring’s run to the second round the Predators have high hopes and expect to be playing deep into the playoffs.
The expectation to go deep in the playoffs really set in last spring when they lost three one-goal games (the fourth loss was by two goals, via an empty netter) to the eventual Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks. The Predators weren’t just “happy to be there.” Looking back after being knocked out, they felt they had a real chance to compete for the Cup.
Now they have that win-now mentality as a team going into this year’s postseason – and why not?
Barry Trotz’s club has been solid since early December, they have great balance up and down the roster and they possess arguably the best goaltending/defense corps in the league. And as Trotz noted, thanks to GM David Poile it’s a deeper team than they’ve ever had in Nashville. The final weeks of the season have been a mini training camp as Trotz tinkers with his lines on a nightly basis.
“The depth is there. David has gone out and filled some holes with depth,” Trotz said.
The in-season additions of Alexander Radulov, Hal Gill, Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn make the Predators a much tougher team to play against than they were at the All-Star break. Radulov and Kostitsyn give the Preds two, maybe three lines that can strike at any time, while Gill and Gaustad ooze with leadership and experience.
“We’ve got some guys that have gone deep in the playoffs before,” Trotz said. “Gaustad, Gill won a Stanley Cup, Andrei has gone deep, Rads won a championship. Those are the guys we picked up. Then you look at the guys that return from the two series last year; there aren’t too many guys that weren’t a part of that. That’s why I think we’re a little more suited [to win now].”
In the season’s first half the Predators lacked consistency in their game – Trotz said, “After the first five games I was wondering if we were capable of making the playoffs.” – but they have grown into one of the Western Conference’s elite teams. As a team the Predators feel like they can beat anybody in their path of what they hope is a long playoff run.
“I think we have a great team, but it’s up to us to show it,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said.
If the playoffs started today the Predators would have first-round home ice, playing a Detroit team that has been their measuring stick since Day 1. The West seems more wide-open than normal. How will St. Louis handle the pressure? Can Vancouver overcome inconsistencies to get back to the final? Is Detroit or Chicago the real deal? Will San Jose or Los Angeles even make the playoffs?
There are a lot of question marks within the conference’s pre-season favorites, which could mean this is Nashville’s best shot at playing hockey in June for the first time in franchise history.
The urgency (due to Ryan Suter's impending free agent status) and expectation is higher than ever in Music City. Unlike past years, Trotz’s team has a target on its back. The Predators are no longer the little team that could – they are the big team that should.
“Last year the only round we had been in as a team was the first round,” Rinne said. “Right now we’ve got that excitement, we feel it. The expectations in the room are a lot higher – that’s one thing you notice pretty [quickly].”
Rinne continued, “I personally believe we have as good of a chance as ever to compete for a Stanley Cup.”Photo credit: Getty Images