Predators defenseman P.K. Subban perfectly summed up the Nashville Predators’ state of mind after they beat the St. Louis Blues, advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.
“The expectation is the Stanley Cup,” Subban said. “I think we took a big step for us and obviously for this organization and this city. Our ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and we’ve worked really hard to put ourselves in a good position. There’s a lot of hockey left to be played.”
A conference final is uncharted water for this franchise. Nashville has only been to the second round of the playoffs three times, including this year. Entering their first-round matchup with Chicago back in April, the Preds had only won three series in their history, with a 3-9 record overall. After sweeping the Blackhawks, then ousting the Blues in six games, Nashville has almost doubled its franchise total for series wins.
In the process, the Preds became the first 8-seed in North American sports history to sweep a 1-seed. They are also seeking to become just the second 8-seed in league history, and first since the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, to win a Stanley Cup.
Gnash bows down at the skates of Goalie Pekka Rinne.
“It’s a really positive thing certainly for our franchise, our fans and the city of Nashville,” head coach Peter Laviolette said following the Game 6 win. “You can see the excitement not only in the building, but outside of the building. I think that only helps promote hockey and helps promote the growth of what we’re trying to do here in Nashville. It was an unbelievable experience tonight in the building and really all year. Our fans deserve so much credit for how the atmosphere is here. It doesn’t have to be that way, yet it is. Our players, coaches and organization really appreciate that.
“It’s a great feeling right now. It was a tough series. Every game was tight; every game was a battle. So, we’re really happy right now.”
“It’s a big step for us,” goaltender Pekka Rinne added. “Not only for us players, but also as an organization. It’s something that we haven’t done before. All series, I thought each game was really hard and tight, a lot of one-goal games. To see (forward Calle) Jarnkrok put that in, that was a great feeling and obviously, a big relief.”
After selling out all 41 home games during the regular season, and every game in the playoffs, Bridgestone Arena is earning a reputation as the loudest arena in the NHL. There is no doubt that the Nashville faithful have turned Bridgestone into a true home-ice advantage. The Preds have not lost in their home barn in five games this postseason, and nine overall dating back to last year’s playoffs.
“It’s exciting,” defenseman Ryan Ellis added. “You take a look into the crowd, everyone’s on their feet for the entire game and the atmosphere that the fans bring for us is unbelievable. (There were) standing ovations at every whistle almost. It was an exciting game, an exciting series and now we’re on to the next one.”
Through five home playoff games this year, Nashville is averaging 3.0 goals per game and surrendering just 1.2 goals. In fact, the Preds have only given up multiple goals just once on home-ice this postseason (against Chicago in Game 4). They have scored 15 goals at home, while surrendering just six.
“It’s great for the fans and all the support they give us,” center Ryan Johansen added. “It’s great to go out and be able to do what we do. We have 20-plus great hockey players in here and they are just going to keep pushing and trying to play the best hockey they can. It’s fun, for sure.”
For newer members of the Predators franchise, such as Subban and Johansen, the moment was perhaps hard to contextualize. However, for Pekka Rinne, the longest tenured member of the team, the win was nearly difficult to put into words.
“It means everything right now,” he said. “Obviously, we haven’t gone further than this before. It’s a great feeling. But there’s also a lot of work left. After this round, there’s only four teams left. We all know that we have what it takes and everything is in our hands. It’s a good feeling. This is why you play this game; I’m happy.”
An eighth-round draft pick in 2004, Rinne has been with the team from its infancy stages as it has become the perennial playoff team General Manager David Poile has constructed it to be. He was the net minder during the franchise’s first playoff series win in 2010-11 against the Anaheim Ducks. He was also in goal for the first Game 7 in team history in 2015-16, also against the Ducks. So needless to say, he has seen it all.
“To be honest, a couple of years ago, we had a really good regular season,” Rinne said. “We had a lot of the same guys. Obviously, now they’re a bit older and have different leadership roles. We came short in the first round against Chicago, and I think, that since that, we’ve grown a lot. Last year was a good experience for us going to two game sevens in the playoffs. It was a good run for us, but a big disappointment in the end. I think all of those things have been grooming us to get better and prepare ourselves. I feel like right now, we can do some damage.”
Rinne is also on the doorstep of some noteworthy playoff records. His .951 save percentage is the highest amongst goaltenders during any playoff run, topping Jonathan Quick’s .946 percentage from 2012.
He is also within striking distance of posting the lowest goals-against average in playoff history. Currently, Frank Brimsek holds that record with a 1.25 goals-against-average; however, Rinne’s 1.37 mark isn’t far behind him.
“He’s been our best player in the whole playoffs so far,” forward Viktor Arvidsson said. “(He’s) making saves that you don’t think are possible and keeping us in games. He’s been unbelievable.”
“He’s been awesome; he’s been great,” Laviolette added. “He’s been excellent down the stretch and excellent all year. But down the stretch, he’s been terrific in the postseason. In these first two rounds – to this point – he’s been terrific and I think our guys have done a really good job in front of him.
“He gives us that confidence. Like I said, I think every game he’s been our best player. He’s so confident back there. He’s confident in making saves, he’s confident in passing the puck, and he’s been unbelievable for us.”
The elder statesman of the Predators, Rinne is perhaps the only player who can best understand the emotions running through Poile’s mind heading into the team’s first conference final.
Poile took over an expansion team in 1998, assembling and constructing a franchise that routinely makes the playoffs, and is finally starting to get comfortable amongst the elite teams in the Western Conference.
Ryan Johansen celebrates his game-winning goal in Game 6 to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
“I saw him (Poile) right after the game and you could see his expressions and emotion pretty clearly,” Rinne said. “It was a pretty big moment for him, I’m sure. I’ve played here my whole career and I’ve been just a minor part. He’s been here for a long, long time. He’s done a great job and obviously, it’s a job where you have to be willing to take a lot of heat. I couldn’t do that. It’s a tough job. For him, it’s great to be in this position.”
Nashville has qualified for the postseason in 10 of 19 seasons, but has never made it past the second round until now. After taking out the No. 1 and No. 3 seeds, Nashville will shift its focus toward the Anaheim Ducks with the chance to play for a Stanley Cup on the line – a position this franchise has fought for 19 years to reach.
“I think the job of getting into the playoffs and then moving on in each round is a difficult job,” Laviolette said. “Certainly, I think that the guys know that we got by a good team in the first round. We mentioned the hottest team in the league since February with their coaching change in the second round, and they acknowledge that. We played well enough to do that and I think they’re looking forward to playing more hockey.”
Anaheim’s offense will provide perhaps the toughest test the Preds have seen this postseason. They rank second among playoff teams in goals per game (3.18). The good news for Nashville: Rinne has the best save percentage of any playoff goalie, and the Predators have the stingiest defense in the playoffs. After all, they shut out the mighty Chicago Blackhawks in back-to-back games, while holding them to just three goals in four games.
Anaheim, on the other hand, is not so fortunate. The Preds average 2.80 goals per game and Ducks goalie John Gibson has the worst save percentage in the playoffs (.908). History is also on Nashville’s side, as the Predators have never lost a playoff series to the Ducks (2-0 all time).
Regardless of the outcome of this series, Nashville is making a statement. This may be the first time they have been to a conference final, but they certainly aren’t playing like it.
Michael Gallagher can be reached at email@example.com.