Predators doing it again: Back in West race and proving pundits wrong
We take you back to Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 1, when the sports world was focused on Pittsburgh's dramatic victory over Arizona.
The Nashville Predators were in Edmonton, beginning the day at 14th in the NHL's Western Conference standings, eight points out of a playoff spot. Who knew a 2-1 win over the Oilers that afternoon would kick off a 12-4-1 stretch over the next five weeks and propel the Preds all the way to sixth in the conference as of Friday morning.
"Right after that game [on Feb. 1], we had our fathers' trip," Preds captain Jason Arnott told ESPN.com. "A lot of the fathers came back with us from Edmonton. Having them on the next trip and playing well in front of them, that gave us a little extra boost. Everyone was giving it that extra for their dad.
"We weren't as concerned about making the playoffs at that point as we were just going out and playing hard in every game and letting the chips fall where they may."
The chips have fallen and the Preds are back in the game in a big way. Nashville takes a season-high six-game winning streak into Philadelphia on Saturday night as the Predators attempt to continue an improbable run that few of us saw coming.
"A blind dog will find a bone once in a while," joked Preds coach Barry Trotz.
His humble mumbo jumbo aside, it shows you once again why Trotz is among the best coaches in this league and why he has kept his job so darn long in Nashville. The man squeezes juice out of a rock in the desert.
"Yes he does," Arnott said with a laugh. "A lot of the times, he's recognized as a guy who is too nice and sometimes the guys take advantage of that a little bit. But he's trying to find that fine line. And I can tell you it's a lot more enjoyable to play for a guy you can approach every day than a guy you really don't want to look at when you get to the rink."
There are no real big stars on this roster other than stud blueliner Shea Weber. There have been stars that have come through Nashville, such as Peter Forsberg or Paul Kariya or Tomas Vokoun, but they eventually leave town mostly for financial reasons. The small-market Preds can't hang with the big boys of finance, but they're showing us yet again they can hang with the big boys on the ice despite that.
Just how do they do it year after year?
"I think our culture takes over," Trotz said. "The culture being that we don't make any excuses for losing players, or not being able to re-sign some guys or do other things; we just find another way to do it. The guys always look at it as a challenge every year. I knew we [the coaches] do. The guys embrace it. It's a 'shut up and play' kind a thing."
What comes next in the stretch run will matter more than the hot streak that got Nashville to this point. As much as it's been a fun ride over the past five weeks, it won't matter much if they fall back in the pack. We wrote about other Western clubs like Los Angeles and St. Louis in recent weeks that used hot stretches to get back in the playoff race only to stumble a bit after that. You can't let up when you've got so many teams still chasing the final three spots.
"Absolutely, it's really crazy when you think about it," Arnott said. "You can go from sixth to 12th in a real hurry. Every game is so important from now to the end. We have to keep it going, otherwise we can be back at the bottom in a week or two."
Trotz said everyone on the roster is pulling his weight right now, which is important on a team that isn't too fat on expensive, high-end talent. He pointed to his top players, led by Arnott, as showing the way, and also mentioned the play of defenseman Ryan Suter, who is overshadowed by Weber, but making huge strides. Trotz also talked about defenseman Dan Hamhuis and center David Legwand, who has been rock solid since the All-Star break, and unsung hero Joel Ward.
But more than anything, you have to start in goal, where Pekka Rinne has been lights out. As ESPN.com colleague Scott Burnside wisely pointed out recently, why is it that more people aren't talking about Rinne as a Calder Trophy candidate since his numbers are similar to rookie-of-the-year favorite Steve Mason of Columbus? (As of Friday, Rinne had 22 wins to go along with a 2.22 goals-against average and .923 save percentage, compared to Mason's 25 wins and 2.24 GAA and .916 save percentage.)
"Pek's been really outstanding for us," Trotz said. "His save percentage, the confidence with which the guys play in front of him, he's worthy as a mention [for the Calder], no question. His numbers stack up against Mason's."
"A lot of credit to our scouts for identifying talent in that area, and a lot of credit to [goalie coach] Mitch Korn for developing goaltenders in our system," Trotz said. "They become assets for us."
The Predators are doing it again, folks. Showing up to camp, finding out from the pundits they're no good, and then going out and proving them wrong.
"We're kind of used to that over the last couple of years," Arnott said. "Everybody writes us off at the beginning of the year, and we just ignore it and go out and play."