Never before has the 16th-seeded team in the playoffs captured the Stanley Cup. After two impressive series wins, the Predators are halfway there.
Hockey history in Music City?
Not yet, but they might want to start warming up the band in Nashville.
The Predators have a chance to become the biggest underdog to win the Stanley Cup since the NHL went to 16 playoff teams, a format that was introduced in 1979-80 when the league expanded to 21 clubs.
Nashville skated into the 2017 post-season as the lowly No. 8 seed in the West – losing the wild-card tiebreaker to the Calgary Flames – and ranked last in points among the league’s 16 playoff teams. Never in NHL history has the 16th-seeded team captured the Stanley Cup, and only once before has a No. 8 conference seed won the Cup – the Los Angeles Kings in 2012. In fact, only one other No. 8 conference seed has ever advanced to the Cup final, when the upstart Edmonton Oilers got all the way to Game 7 before falling to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.
To be sure, it should be pointed out the Predators aren’t exactly million-to-one long shots or anything like that. They’ve been a pseudo-contender for the past decade or so, and while they’ve missed the playoffs three times since 2005-06, they’ve also posted five 100-point seasons in that span. This season, the Preds finished with 94 points, 15 fewer than the Chicago Blackhawks, the No. 1 team in the West. It’s not a huge gap, but it’s significant enough, especially in today’s salary-capped and parity-empowered NHL. So while it was surprising when Nashville unceremoniously swept Chicago out of the playoffs in the first round, it was far from a ‘Miracle On Ice’ moment. The Preds are a good team – and they have been for a while – that just happened to have the worst record among the NHL’s 16 playoff teams this season.
Through two playoff rounds, the Predators have looked a lot more like champions-in-the-making than unheralded underdogs. The impressive sweep of the Blackhawks, winners of three Stanley Cups in the past seven years, was followed up in Round 2 with a workmanlike elimination of the St. Louis Blues in six games. By beating the Blues, the Predators already made some franchise history, advancing to the conference final for the first time.
How are they winning? Pretty much the same way they always have, with a sterling blueline and great goaltending supported by dedicated team defense and scoring depth. This time around, though, they’ve got a bona fide No. 1 line, too.
The top two ‘D’ pairings – Roman Josi with Ryan Ellis, and P.K. Subban with Mattias Ekholm – give Nashville arguably the best top-four in the league, and they’ve been playing a ton during the playoffs, nearly 50 minutes per game. Pekka Rinne, who’s been up-and-down the past few years, has been lights-out this post-season. The 34-year-old netminder enters the Western Conference final with an 8-2 playoff record underlined by sparkling stats (1.37 goals-against average, .951 save percentage). He’s given up one or fewer goals in six of his 10 post-season starts, including two shutouts, and has even chipped in with three assists. Up front, the Preds finally have a truly dangerous first line with Ryan Johansen between Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. But, as has usually been the case in Nashville, it’s about their overall offensive depth and secondary scoring support rather than an Ovechkinian approach. Through 10 playoff games, fourteen different Predators players have scored at least one goal, including eight with at least two goals. Eight different Preds players have accounted for the game-winning goal in their eight playoff wins so far. Ellis, a defenseman, and Johansen are tied for team’s scoring lead with nine points, and Ellis is tied with another defenseman, Josi, for the team lead in goals (four).
After years of post-season disappointment – the Predators failed to get out of the first round the first five times they made the playoffs – Nashville is closer than ever before to the Stanley Cup. If they keep rolling and claim the first Cup in franchise history, they’d be the first No. 16 seed ever to win an NHL title.
While the Preds would be the biggest underdog in several decades to capture the Cup, they wouldn’t be the biggest long shot of all-time. That out-of-nowhere distinction belongs to the Chicago Black Hawks of 1938 – from a bygone era so long ago that the team’s nickname is spelled differently. The ’38 Black Hawks squeaked into the playoffs as the sixth-place team in an eight-team league. After a lackluster 14-25-7 showing in the regular season, Chicago found its stride in the post-season and knocked off the Montreal Canadiens and New York Americans in best-of-3 series in the first two rounds before besting the Toronto Maple Leafs three games to one in the Cup final.
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