Steve Sullivan, Preds motivated again

Scott Burnside and I ran into Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz at the NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas this past June. Nearly two months later, he still looked sick to his stomach when we brought up Game 5 of his first-round series loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

And who can blame him. Just 13.6 seconds away from carrying a 3-2 series lead back home to Nashville and smelling the upset, Hawks sniper Patrick Kane scored a short-handed goal to bring on overtime and Marian Hossa's eventual winner.

That close.

The Predators have had almost six months to ruminate over that six-game, opening-round loss. And they've come out gang-busters to start the season at 3-0-0.

"It's not like we think we didn't win the Stanley Cup because we lost to Chicago," Preds veteran forward Steve Sullivan told ESPN.com on Friday. "But I do think we learned a lot from that series. When you have an opponent on the ropes, you have to take care of it. We let them back into that series too many times.

"So yes, I do think the guys are hungry. We've never won a playoff series here in Nashville and we definitely let that one slip away. We've got a lot of unfinished business."

Not that anyone has picked the Predators to do anything great this season. They're used to that. In a division that features the Cup champion Hawks, the perennial powerhouse Red Wings and the recharged Blues, a team many believe will be back in the playoffs this season, the Preds once again are after-thoughts on the national scene. That despite a 100-point season last season.

"We know what kind of hockey club we are," said Sullivan. "We know what we expect in the dressing room. What other people expect or believe, it's great, it's their opinion. But in the end, the 25 guys in that dressing room, we're not going to settle for anything less than what we want."

Leading the charge has been Mr. Sullivan, whose four goals through three games this season had him tied for the league lead Friday morning with several recognizable faces. Early days, yes, but Sullivan has found nice chemistry on a line with Cal O'Reilly and Patric Hornqvist.

"We really got it going," said Sullivan. "Everyone one of us brings a little something to the table."

Hornqvist made a name for himself last season with a 30-goal season. O'Reilly, the older brother of Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly, is really the wild-card here. He played 31 games with Nashville last season in a split season with AHL Milwaukee. O'Reilly, drafted 150th overall by the Preds in 2005, already has four assists in three games and looks to have found a home with Sullivan and Hornqvist (two goals, one assist).

"Cal's a very gifted and skilled player," said Sullivan. "I think he's an unbelievable passer and sees the ice very well. He's been up and down with us the last couple of years and his game is just maturing now to the point where he's definitely a full-time NHLer now. He's fun to play with. He makes a lot of high percentage plays. So you always have to be aware of it."

Sullivan, 36, said playing with two young bucks like O'Reilly, 24, and Hornqvist, 23, has also given him energy. He's eager to improve on his 51-point (17 goals) season from last year, when he played all 82 games but didn't generate the point-a-game offense he was known for before his two-year layoff recovering from a career-threatening back injury.

"Last year definitely was a year off for me," said Sullivan. "It wasn't what I expected or wanted. I think that it just took time for me to come back from the injury and it took time for me to come back to the player that I think I should be. Sure, you're getting up there in age but I think my biggest asset is my skating and as long as I can keep that going I should be able to have some success."