Photo courtesy: Robert Claypool
The unimaginable and unthinkable has happened. The Nashville Predators clinched a spot to play in the Stanley Cup Final.
Since their inaugural 1998-1999 season, the Preds never made it past the second round of the playoffs. In their first ever conference finals this year, the Preds posted a gutsy series against a feisty Ducks team to win in six games with a closeout win at home. Behind a raucous and rowdy crowd that is creating fear in opponents even before the game starts, the Preds have been a force to reckon with.
Midway through the season, the Predators were struggling. Coming off a successful 2016 playoffs, the Preds had high hopes to compete for a top spot in the Western Conference. However, it wasn’t looking as promising early. P.K. Subban, a NHL top five defensemen, was looking like a shell of himself after being traded to the Preds for long time captain Shea Weber. Nashville, with all the depth they added in the front line, struggled to score points. Coach Peter Laviolette looked lost on how to bring his team together. However, the team put together a strong ending to the regular season, just enough to squeeze into the last wild card spot, setting up a daunting matchup against the rival Chicago Blackhawks.
Ask any hockey fan in Nashville and they will tell you who they hate the most. The Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks. Against a hated rival, Preds swept a dominant Chicago team stacked with talent, allowing only three goals the entire series with outstanding play from goalie Pekka Rinne. That set the stage for a mind boggling run where they ran through the Blues and Ducks in six games each.
A left-for-dead offense has suddenly become a potent scoring attack. Lead by Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg, the Preds have scored a monstrous 47 goals in the playoffs while giving up only 29 goals, 11 fewer than the next best amongst the conference finalists. Despite season ending injuries to Kevin Fiala and Johansen, the Preds have shown great resilience and depth. Colton Sissons got the nod to play the top lines in Game 6 against the Ducks and scored a hatrick. Pontus Aberg, a new add to the team after playing in only 15 regular season games this year, scored or assisted on a goal in back to back games. James Neal, Austin Watson, and Colin Wilson have all added valuable minutes and opportune goals while the Predators have a 7-1 record at home this postseason. Then we come to the real strength of the Predators: the speedy and powerful defensemen. With P.K. Subban and Roman Josi leading the way, Nashville’s top four defensemen recorded 38 of the 111 points. Ryan Ellis has been nothing short of magnificent with four goals and six assists.
However, Rinne has been the star of the playoffs. After stopping the Blackhawks the entire series, Rinne has a .941 save percentage these playoffs, third best all-time with at least ten wins in a playoff. The franchise’s best goalie is having a historically great playoffs and has allowed a mere 28 goals thus far. The clear leader of this team, the Predators feed off of the play of their goalie. When Rinne is on fire, this team is unstoppable.
For a franchise that has shown promise but shaky foundation, this is a massive step in the right direction. Nashville has had great players in the past, such as Ryan Suter, Steve Sullivan, Shea Weber, and David Legwand, but the franchise struggled to put together a cohesive team. Depth was always an issue and Nashville struggled to build an attractive environment for free agents. Top players always left the team for bigger contracts and more alluring teams, as the Preds failed to capitalize on their home grown talent year in and year out.The team let go of the franchise’s only coach Barry Trotz at the end of the 2014 season in favor of a successful Peter Laviolette. The Preds even faced the threat of relocation during the 2007 season after ownership changed due to financial troubles. Luckily for Nashville, the Preds stayed put. For a franchise that once struggled to bring fans into the stadium in a city where football rules all, the Predators have cleared the way in becoming Smashville’s face and future. As a franchise that used to practice with open doors in the local ice rink with kids learning figure skating across the hall, this is one huge step in developing a long-term hockey destination.
The Predators have shown great fight and grit. The underdog mentality clearly drives them. No deficit has been too big nor any obstacle too daunting. This team is clearly ready to become a national force and fan favorite. Get ready hockey fans, you are about to see the Nashville Predators bring home the Stanley Cup.