Predators Advance to Franchise First Final

The noise in the Bridgestone Arena was deafening. It was mayhem in Smashville, but the Anaheim Ducks weren’t going to fly away quietly. That much the Nashville Predators knew.

Although the scoreboard above the heads of 17,000 ravenous fans read 4-3 in favor of the Predators, the lead still didn’t feel safe, especially since they had given up a two-goal lead twice in the game. There were still over two minutes left in the game, and the Ducks had pulled their hapless goaltender Jonathan Bernier for a last ditch man advantage. In Game 6, the Ducks were as dominant as they have ever been. For 57 minutes, they pushed and pressured; fowl became predator and Nashville was trapped in their own zone for extended shifts.

Nashville’s Filip Forsberg made it look so easy on a night that was anything but. The puck squirted to him along the boards, and without thinking, he quickly cleared the zone. The puck bounced and skittered directly towards the empty net. Finally, there wasn’t any doubt. With his 8th playoff goal (a franchise record), Forsberg sealed the deal, sending the Predators to their first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.

Predators Underdogs No More

Any sports fanatic will tell you that sometimes, in order to make a run in the postseason, it’s about getting hot at the right time. More often than not, especially in the NHL, it isn’t the regular season’s best team who finds success in the spring.

The Predators were an afterthought, and in their 19 years of existence, they always have been. They were the team whose destiny seemed to peg them as second round drop outs. The knock on Nashville was that it was hard to take them seriously as a true contender, especially when they shared the same division as the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues. Nashville is just a Bettman-era expansion team, what do they know?

Entering the playoffs as the 16th and final team to make the postseason, it was hard to tell which Predators team would show up. An early favorite to win the Cup, the Predators were mediocre all season, despite outstanding performances from players like Ryan Johansen and Viktor Arvidsson. Could they take that extra step? At first, this didn’t seem like the right team to do it. Their depth was an issue, the goaltending from Pekka Rinne was questionable, and the new additions to the defense never quite clicked.

Nashville Predators pose with teammates and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl trophy (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

As it turns out, the team that showed up was one that few saw coming. They steamrolled the Blackhawks and dismantled the Blues. It’s amazing what a couple of weeks can do to change a team’s narrative. All the lingering questions from the regular season have vanished. The Predators are the talk of the NHL.

Their defense is the best and most dangerous in the league, and they have set the bar for what it means to play a cohesive two-way style. Suddenly, they have all sorts of depth. They have survived potentially devastating injuries to star players Johansen and Mike Fisher without missing a beat, and role players, like Pontus Aberg who scored the game-winning goal in OT of Game 5, have stepped up to fill their star-shaped holes.

A lot of the credit here goes to the coaching staff, which has had to adjust on the fly. Head coach Peter Laviolette has made the Predators into a ferocious two-way team, and with Monday’s victory, he joined Dick Irvin, Scotty Bowman and Mike Keenan the become the 4th coach in NHL history to lead three different teams to the Stanley Cup Final.

But the Predators belong to GM David Poile. It is his unshakable vision that has brought the franchise to this point.

While watching the team and listening to their fans roar and sing in unison, it’s been easy to forget that the Predators are a relatively new expansion team. It’s hard to find success in a new town, to build a fan base and a competitive team for it to support, but Poile has kept a steady hand. A lot of the talk will be about the recent deals Poile has made to build the current team. He has made fools out of other teams in the league who might’ve been too quick to cut their star players loose. However, Poile’s greatest asset has been his patience. Smashville wasn’t built in a day.

After years of patience and consistency (the Predators have only had two coaches throughout their existence), he finally built the team he originally envisioned in 1998, and now they are headed to the Stanley Cup Final.

Pekka Power

Yet, none of this would be possible without Rinne. Last year, the Finnish goaltender was a disaster in the playoffs, and at age 34, it seemed as though his prime was behind him. This year, Rinne has been the difference. He is 12-4 in the postseason, with a 1.70 goals against average and a playoff save percentage of .942. His lights-out performance against the Blackhawks is what has propelled the Predators to this point.

Pekka Rinne making a stop on Ryan Kesler (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

On Monday night, he was the best player on the ice, while his opponent Bernier had a night he’d like to forget, letting in 4 goals on 16 shots. As the Ducks continued to surge, he did not falter with the weight of the team on his shoulders. Rinne made 41 saves, each one more crucial than the last. When the offense wasn’t coming and the Ducks were on the attack, Rinne kept his team in the game. He played brilliantly, as he has all postseason long. If it wasn’t for him, the Predators would probably be headed back to Anaheim.

Rinne is the reason the Predators are four wins away from a Stanley Cup. It’s been remarkable watching his resurgence this postseason. Rinne has found his game at the right time, age and prime be damned. He has silenced his critics, and has every right to be in the Conn Smythe conversation.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Rinne after the win. “But it’s a funny thing, though. When this is happening around us, you still feel hungry, and now we have a chance to play for the Cup. It’s a pretty amazing feeling. And you’ve been working for that for a long, long time.”

While Rinne kept his team in the game all night, an unlikely hero emerged.

Running With Sissons

On January 6, 2017, the Predators were visiting the Tampa Bay Lightning on what was their first road trip of the new year. That night turned out to be a key game for the Predators and the fate of their 2016-17 season. They routed the Lightning 6 – 1, their highest margin of victory of the season to that point, led by a hat trick from an unlikely source: third line center, Colton Sissons. He had only scored two goals before that game (seven in total over 78 career NHL games), and it was Sissons’ first career hat trick. That would be the best and most “surreal” performance of the season for Sissons…until Game 6.

The playoffs are where folk heroes are born. It’s why everyone in New York knows Stefan Matteau’s name, or why Justin Williams is nicknamed “Mr. Game 7.” The big stars don’t always shine the brightest in the postseason.

You’d be forgiven if you forgot that Sissons was even on the Predators roster. The 2012 draft pick only recorded 10 points this season, and was a healthy scratch just two months ago. He’s one of those players you want to see succeed, who works hard but doesn’t own the statistical results. Game 6 changed all that. Monday night Sissons led the Predators with with his second hat trick of the season and in turn became the “Hero of Smashville.”

The newly constructed line of Sissons, Aberg, and Arvidsson was the only line that seemed to give the Ducks trouble in their own zone. Sissons’ first goal was off a quick counter attack that started with a turnover in the neutral zone created by Sissons. His second goal, the Predators’ third, was originally credited to Aberg, but upon review it was clear that Sissons threw the loose puck in front of the net past Bernier.

His third goal, the game-winner, was yet another opportunity created by Nashville’s new hero. At that point in the game, with six minutes left to play after the Ducks scored a tying goal that seemed inevitable, it was easy to think that the thread by which the Predators were hanging was beginning to fray. The Ducks had come back after dominating most of the game, and the Nashville crowd was suddenly quieter than usual. Sissons skated into the Ducks zone, left the puck for Calle Jarnkrok, and moved into perfect position to hammer home the biggest goal in Predators history.

In the playoffs, you never know who is going to show up at the right time, and Sissons made the most of the rare opportunity he was given. “It feels good, man. I’m not going to lie,” he said afterward. “I don’t think I even dreamt of this moment, scoring a hat trick in a Western Conference-clinching game.”

Surreal, ain’t it?