NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Nashville Predators know they are playing the Anaheim Ducks. The opponent almost doesn’t matter for a franchise that realizes making the post-season isn’t enough.
The Predators are in the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons, part of select company with Montreal, San Jose and Detroit in the NHL to do that. They’ve also won 40 games in each of the past six seasons right along with Detroit, San Jose and Calgary.
But there are no fuzzy feelings over just being in the post-season because the Predators have yet to win a Game 6, or play in a Game 7. Winning an opening series is what matters now.
“For us, it’s the next step,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said Sunday. “Sooner or later we’re going to break through that, and that’s been our goal since losing out last year is to take the next step. Hopefully, we’ll take it this year. From our standpoint, that’s our goal.”
Nashville had to wait for Detroit to beat Chicago 4-3 on Sunday before settling in as the Western Conference’s No. 5 seed, which sends the Predators to Anaheim. Nashville won the regular season series 3-1, though the Predators know that means nothing now.
“It’s a totally different game, but that being said we’ve played well down the stretch and I think we can rely on that,” centre Mike Fisher said. “We feel like we’ve been playing some playoff hockey for the last little while because it’s been so tight and we’ve been kind of up against a wall and needed wins and we found them.”
The Predators finished the season 14-4-3, moving from 11th going into a game on March 10 to grab a playoff berth. Captain Shea Weber said after Saturday night’s 2-0 loss at St. Louis they understand everything is equal now.
“It’s where the heart and character shows now,” Weber said.
This franchise came oh so close a year ago, leading Game 5 in Chicago with a chance to go up 3-2 in the series. The Blackhawks scored with 13 1-2 seconds left to tie it, and won in overtime before clinching the series in Game 6.
Forward Steve Sullivan said a key difference in this team and the previous five that made the playoffs is experience.
“It’s not just me that’s been here. There’s a lot of other guys,” he said. “We’ve gone through these first rounds and not had success. We don’t like that feeling. We’re a lot more guys in here, the core of guys that have been here, want to have success and want to build something here.
“It starts in goal, and we believe we’ve got the best goaltender in the league. A solid core defence, and defence wins in the playoffs. We believe we’re right up there with the best in the league.”
The Predators missed 348 games to injuries during the season but seem to be healing at the right time. Sullivan played only one game after Feb. 24 because of a groin injury, but was in the lineup Friday against Columbus. Forward Cal O’Reilly made the trip to St. Louis, though he didn’t play.
Rookies like Matt Halischuk and Blake Geoffrion also have contributed timely scoring, minutes and energy.
“It’s a fun place to play, it’s a fun place to come to work, and it’s just a fun place in general,” defenceman Shane O’Brien said. “It’s been a blast, and hopefully, we can keep this going into June.”
They also have some much-needed playoff experience in Fisher with 75 post-season games. Trotz said Nashville would not have made the playoffs this season without trading for him on Feb. 10. Fisher has centred Patric Hornqvist and Sergei Kostitsyn, Nashville’s only two 20-goal scorers this season, and has points in six of his last seven games.
Trotz credited general manager David Poile and Nashville’s local ownership group for making the investment to bring in Fisher to help with all the injuries. Trotz said he constantly hears questions from other markets, especially in Canada, about the owners’ commitment to staying in Nashville. He said the trade with Ottawa for Fisher was a big statement.
“We’re here to stay, and our main goal now is not only stay here. We’re staying here, and we’re going to try to win some playoff rounds and a Stanley Cup,” he said. “That’s our goal now.”