By Stu Hackel
There is no other championship tournament in sports that each year and each night contains the twists, turns, drama and unpredictability of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It’s that simple and there can be no argument — especially from anyone who has watched the competition during the last week or so. It should be obvious that winning a single game demands an abundance of energy, discipline, character, talent and luck.
So winning just one series requires those qualities in unimaginable quantities. And no franchise knows that better than the Nashville Predators.
Today, the Predators stand as the third team this spring to move on to the second round. On their website, they are finally able to say, for the first time in their history, “Round 2 Playoff Tickets On Sale Now.” And they’ve gotten the ultimate validation: their own official National Hockey League Stanley Cup Playoffs promotional spots.
Yes, it has taken the Predators 13 seasons and five trips to the playoffs to win a round. But what they won on Sunday was more than a fourth game over the Ducks. They’ve finally won some respect and heightened relevance in the hockey community.
The Preds have for too long been an afterthought among fans and the media. That’s not surprising considering their southern location in a culture that still looks oddly at where a team plays its home games. And in this case, Nashville’s identity remains so wrapped up with the Grand Ole Opry, cowboy hats and big hairstyles that fans have had lots of material for derisive jokes. But the days of a half-filled home arena are gone. Jim Balsillie and Boots Del Biaggio are a distant memory. The Predators play in front of a packed house with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic fan base.
Still, as long as playoff success eluded the Preds, the hockey world could afford to ignore them regardless of how well they did during the regular season.
The fact is, they’ve done well. They have an excellent hockey department and the days when an opponent could skate out on the ice against them can take them lightly passed long ago. They’ve made life miserable for the Red Wings for years and the Blackhawks will tell you their series against Nashville last season was the most difficult in their Stanley Cup run.
But until you win in the playoffs, you haven’t won anything. There will be doubters and there will be questions. The team that, from Day 1, GM David Poile built and Barry Trotz has coached had to get by without ever dressing a big-time goal scorer. They thought they had one in the making with Alexander Radulov, but he jumped his contract and fled home to play for more money in the KHL, leaving a gaping hole in Poile’s plans.
So, by necessity, as well as by design, Poile’s team relies on its depth to produce goals, and on guys contributing up and down the lineup. It’s not a bad approach, because if an opponent can shut down one or two of your guys and not have to worry about the rest, you are vulnerable. But the Preds present more across-the-board concerns and that’s how it worked for them in Round 1.
“This series sort of symbolized how the Predators play in a lot of ways,” Trotz said after Game 6. “(David) Legwand’s line got a couple of goals and they’re playing lots against (Ryan) Getzlaf. And (Mike) Fisher’s line got us some goals, and (Jerred) Smithson’s line got us goals. (Blake) Geoffrion’s line got us goals. That’s sort of what we do. That’s our DNA. To win this series, we needed everybody and everybody contributed.”
Everybody includes Nick Spaling, a typical hard-working and largely anonymous Predators forward who scored twice to become the first star in the most historic 60 minutes of the franchise’s history. Like his teammates, he shouldn’t be anonymous, and watching him tirelessly skate in all three zones with his linemates, the gritty Smithson and the irrepressible Jordin Tootoo, has been one of the joys of the first round. In the pivotal and very entertaining Game 5, Spaling also set up the game’s first goal by Kevin Kline and the OT winner by Smithson.
Of course, what the Preds have that few teams can match is a strong and deep defense corps, anchored by captain Shea Weber, who today was named a finalist for the Norris Trophy, and who many think will win it. Weber’s last-minute goal to tie Game 5 on Friday…
…was the epitome of the old playoff cliché that your best players have to be your best players to win in the postseason. Weber has been terrific, as has his partner, Ryan Suter, on perhaps the best defensive tandem in hockey. This blueline corps has lots more going for it, including rookie Cody Franson and physical Shane O’Brien, who toned down his act for a penalty-free Game 6, which Trotz sought from him after his seven penalties in the first five games resulted in four Ducks power-play goals.
“I just had to take a little step back and not play quite as hard and quite as physical,” O’Brien said (quoted in The Tennessean). “Their power play was so good we couldn’t seem to find a way to stop them. We just had to find a way to limit our penalties and now we’re moving on.”
And Nashville has a Vezina-nominated goaltender in Pekka Rinne who, while not at his best against Anaheim, displayed that most-important quality in the playoffs — not surrendering the goal that means defeat.
The final dagger in the Ducks was thrust by David Legwand, who had been contorted by Bobby Ryan in Game 5 for the goal many consider the best of the playoffs.
But Legwand bounced back and set up an equalizer later in that period. His empty-net goal in Game 6 Sunday sealed the win with seconds to go and made the fans go wild.
There was some poetic justice in Leggy’s deed, he being the Predators’ first ever first-round draft pick, the guy who has played more games for this team than anyone and holds most of the franchise’s career scoring records. The emotion of the moment for Nashville was observed by TSN’s Chris Cuthbert. Watching the play on the ice …
…and the scene in the stands after Legwand’s goal from his broadcast location, Cuthbert told his viewers and the world, “There are fans near us in tears here. Tears of emotion in Nashville.”