Nothing will ever be the same for the Nashville Predators.
A franchise that had never reached a Western Conference Final, Nashville won three playoff series on its way to its first conference title and appearance in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Though the Predators lost the Final in six games to the Penguins, the 2017 playoffs were a coming-out party for the Predators and their fans.
“As a city we did get a lot of recognition and I feel like by now we are considered one of the hockey cities in the U.S. too, and it’s a great atmosphere,” said Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne. “I’m proud of our fans and how they got recognized. It was great.”
It’s also in the past, and the Predators are now coping with life in a different place. They’re not a team still waiting for its breakthrough. They’re a bone fide contender with postseason chops and a favorite to compete for the 2018 Stanley Cup.
That experience breeds many things. One of them is confidence. Another is higher standards.
“As a team, you’ve got to feel confident coming in this season after last year,” Rinne said. “But also expectations from the organization and also within the team, and that’s a great feeling too. You are expected to win, and you go in any building (or) play at home you’re expected to win. As a player you love that.”
The Predators haven’t been in love with their performance early this season, though Saturday brought a better game and also frustration. Nashville is 2-2-1 after a 2-1 overtime loss to the Blackhawks in their first visit to Chicago since the 2017 playoffs. Nashville led 1-0 after a second-period Filip Forsberg goal, but Patrick Sharp tied the game with 5:36 remaining in regulation, and Brandon Saad won it for Chicago when he scored at the 3:05 mark in overtime. Despite holding a lead late in the third and recording 38 shots on goal, Nashville walked away with a single point.
“It [stinks] leaving a point out there but we can definitely build off that game,” center Colton Sissons said.
Coach Peter Laviolette said he also liked how the Predators played and that they should have left with two points. He was especially upset by the game-tying goal, when Chicago’s Ryan Hartman wasn’t called for a penalty when he appeared to pull away Matt Irwin’s stick and throw it into the corner, giving Sharp room in front to beat Rinne.
“Playing an unbelievable game to that point and (to) have it taken away from us like that is ridiculous,” Laviolette said.
The Predators lost their first two games and were close to going 0-3 when they fell behind against Philadelphia before rallying for a 6-5 victory. And if there was a different attitude around the team after what happened in April, May, and June, the relatively slow start has snapped the Predators back to reality.
“You start 0-2 I think we’re past all that. We’re sitting there at one point down in that third game. We fought back to win, but we’re beyond that,” Laviolette said. “We’re focused now on winning hockey games and trying to do well in our division and doing our best to make it back to the playoffs like 30 other teams.”
The Predators, like most of the NHL, spent much of the past decade trying to find a way past Chicago. They dropped first-round series’ to the Blackhawks in 2010 and 2015, and this April wasn’t supposed to be different. Chicago entered the playoffs as the West’s top seed with 109 points and with all the playoff success the Predators lacked.
But the Predators’ speed and energy were too much for the Blackhawks, and they dumped Chicago out of the playoffs in a four-game sweep, the first time in the Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews era the Blackhawks have failed to win a game in a playoff series.
“We’ve always had a ton of respect for Nashville. We’ve always had hard games against them,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Tight games, close games, fun games to be involved with. Obviously our playoff series wasn’t fun at all but we feel that we know how good they can be and how good they are.”
While the Blackhawks responded to the sweep by reshaping their roster, there was still a long playoff road to travel for Nashville. It was pretty meaningful too, and launched the Predators onto their memorable run.
“It was obviously, it was huge for us. They’ve been one of the top teams for years now, and we’ve played them many times in the playoffs,” Rinne said. “A lot of times they’ve been our first-round opponent. I think it’s always been first-round and we’ve been out. It’s a terrible feeling. For our organization and for the whole team I think it was big mentally too.”
If the majority of the NHL universe was shocked though, those closest weren’t as stunned.
“Not unbelievable, not surprising,” said Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp, who was still a member of the Dallas Stars last spring. “They’re a great team and I guess now people have taken notice.”
It’s a new thing for Nashville to deal with: No longer wading in the shallow end of NHL obscurity, and now swimming with the big fish.
“We want to be one of the top teams and that comes with certain pressure and certain expectations,” Rinne said. “As a player you love that side of the game.”