The Nashville Predators’ 2020-21 season has truly been a rollercoaster ride. Just when fans thought the season was done and planning for the future was the only thing left to do, they went on an incredible run. The team went 19-7-1 in their last 27 games, which since March 17, gave them the league’s fourth-best points percentage.
The Predators snuck into the playoffs as the fourth seed, which pitted them against the division’s top team, the Carolina Hurricanes. Not many, if any, gave the Predators a shot to win and when the Hurricanes jumped out to a 2-0 series lead, winning both of their home games, those critics surely felt good about their pick and playoff brackets. But like the Predators’ entire season, the First Round series has seen its fair share of ups and downs. Being down to a powerhouse team, who many consider a Stanley Cup contender, was just a dip. However, the Predators have more than enough experience to know what it’s like to be down and nearly out.
Upon returning home, the Predators won both games in double overtime thrillers to climb back into the series, to continue the up-and-down rollercoaster ride.
But after dropping Game 5 – again in overtime, go figure – the Predators once again have their backs against the wall, as they face playing elimination hockey when they return to Nashville for Game 6. Playing a must-win game against one of the league’s top teams may sound pretty daunting. However, with how much adversity the Predators have faced and their experience, they may be the best team suited for the task.
Head coach John Hynes addressed the media following the Game 5 loss, and as expected, a lot of the focus was on the crucial win or go home game coming up. But the bench boss never wavered in his confidence because of where this team has come from.
“As usual, we’ve been in these situations before,” Hynes said. “I think we’re programmed, we’re ready, our guys respond. I think we’ll certainly be ready to go for Game 6 and really excited about the opportunity that we have in front of us here.”
That belief is justified. The Predators have really proven their identity when they’re on the ropes and the pressure is on.
Valuable Lessons From the Regular Season
Remember, the Predators were battling with the Dallas Stars for that fourth and final playoff spot, a clash that went pretty much down to the wire. It was a lot of scoreboard watching while trying to handle their own business as the Stars had multiple games in hand for most of the year. But on May 1, the two squads had a head-to-head meeting, with the consensus being that the winner would almost certainly take the final postseason berth.
The Predators rose to the occasion. Juuse Saros made 28 saves in a shutout victory, which successfully gave them the inside track. Had they lost that game, the Predators and Stars would have been tied in points, with the Stars having one game in hand. However, although the Predators had the advantage, the work wasn’t done. They still had four games remaining, a small margin for error and half of their remaining schedule was against the Hurricanes, who were gunning for the Presidents’ Trophy at the time.
They faced another must win game. This time against these same Hurricanes in order to officially clinch a playoff spot. On May 8 at Bridgestone Arena, the Predators completed what many thought was impossible just two months ago, earning a spot in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
So, not only have the Predators experienced their fair share of pressure-filled games, but they’ve also won them too. They’ve also been victorious against the same opposition which stands in their way from extending this First Round series.
But as impressive as it’s been seeing them step up in big-time games, it’s not really a fluke. Hynes said that he feels his team is “programmed” and that they “respond.” Well, that’s by design because of the philosophy that has been instilled since the start of the season. Their focus is always on the next task rather than dwelling on past failings or becoming satisfied by previous successes.
“You know, it’s what we do. It’s not getting too high, not getting too low,” the head coach said when asked about his team’s ability to adapt.
He later explained:
“The thing I really like about the group, as you’ve seen the last two-and-a-half months, that when we’re in situations like this, just our ability to refocus, put it behind us, get better.”
Of course, the Predators are not where they want to be right now. The situation isn’t ideal. No one wants to be in a position where they are playing elimination hockey. But the good thing is, the Predators have seemingly been built to feel comfortable in uncomfortable conditions and the frustrating regular season has been a big help.
It’s undeniable that the Predators received an enormous amount of criticism this season, and it was justified at the time. But those hard times were also valuable lessons, something that can be drawn on in crunch time.
“We know what we need to do, and we’ve been through this before,” Hynes said during the postgame press conference. “I think that’s part of why you go about your business, the way you go about your business in the regular season. You know, it’s not about the noise. It’s not about getting too high, too low; it’s just getting better.”
You can really see the culture Hynes has installed. But you could argue that it’s one thing to preach the mantra, it’s another thing believing it. Yes, they have experienced the ups and downs of hockey throughout the regular season, but this is the playoffs and as many people claim, the playoffs are a different animal. All of this may be true, but the adversity and experience aren’t solely contained to this current season.
Seasons in the Making
Flashback to 2018. The Predators were locked in a battle between two goliaths when they squared off against the Winnipeg Jets in the Second Round. The two went back and forth. The Jets took games 1, 3 and 5, with the Predators winning games 2 and 4. It meant Nashville found themselves down 3-2 in the series and needing to win Game 6 to force a Game 7. They went on the road to a rowdy Winnipeg, an atmosphere many have compared to Nashville for being as hostile, and they shut the Jets out. At least this Game 6 against the Hurricanes will be within the friendly confines of the Bridgestone Arena.
Now, you may recall the 2018 series against the Jets ultimately did not go the Predators’ way. They won Game 6 on the road, only to return home to get shellacked, 5-1 in Game 7. But the point is, the game at hand right now is Game 6. The Predators are not even thinking about Game 7 and rightly so because they can’t. They really must have a “one game at a time” mentality if they want to stand a chance of being successful.
But, if that’s still giving you pause or you’re not convinced, let’s take it back a little further to 2016. Again, the Predators were in a first-round melee, only more relatable to this year’s Predators. They were the underdog, qualifying for the playoffs as a Wild Card team and squaring off with the Pacific Division Champion, Anaheim Ducks.
The Predators had a great start, winning the first two games in Orange County. They returned home firmly in the driver’s seat. However, then disaster struck. The Predators not only lost both of their home games, but they also dropped Game 5 on the road. They faced the prospect of either winning in Nashville or seeing their season come to an end. In front of a loud, energized Smashville crowd, the Predators won Game 6, 3-1. They would head out to the Golden State one more time for a deciding Game 7 against a divisional champ. The Predators would eliminate the Ducks with a 2-1 win and move on to the Second Round.
Why is this relevant? After all, both series mentioned were coached by Peter Laviolette. Well, the Predators still have the same core now, as they did back then. There are eight skaters on the current roster who played against the Ducks in 2016 and the Jets in 2018. Players such as, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis. So, as you can see, all meaningful players to the Predators’ success. Not to mention Saros was the backup in 2018, sitting and learning from Pekka Rinne.
The coaching style may be different, but the message of not letting the moment get too big will likely remain the same. And the message will be better received because the team’s leaders have lived this before.
“We’ve really come through in a lot of situations this year, where we’ve had a tough loss and then you’ve got to come back to win a game,” Hynes said when discussing his mindset heading into Game 6. “So, we’ve got a lot of confidence in who we are, how we’re playing, what we’re doing and how we will respond.”
What also cannot be overlooked is the fact that the allowed attendance is increasing to over 14,000 at the Bridgestone Arena for the pivotal game. The players claim that the fans give them an invaluable boost, and the results seem to support that. Adding the experience this team’s core has compiled from previous seasons and the adversity the current group has faced this year, and there is no doubt the Predators are equipped to keep this rollercoaster ride going.
I graduated from Mount Royal University with a degree in Journalism with the hopes to pursue a career in sports media. I have been following hockey for many years at various different levels. Whether playing, watching or writing about it, hockey has played a massive role in my life. I was the sports editor at The Calgary Journal as well as a sports columnist for The Calgary Reflector. Follow on Twitter: @A_Grant27