It's been a long time coming -- 13 years, to be exact. And during that time, the Nashville Predators have bounced along from being a scrappy team with solid goaltending to, well, a scrappy team with solid goaltending. OK, truth be told, the Predators have actually evolved their identity quite a bit over their existence, but it took this version of the team to finally break through and advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The team has taken on many faces over the years, though the hard-working mold put forward by Barry Trotz has never been broken. Today, they're in uncharted territory, but before the Predators set foot on second-round ice, let's take a look back at their playoff history.
It took six years, but the Predators finally made the Stanley Cup playoffs. Creeping in as the eighth seed (the same point total as the St. Louis Blues, but St. Louis won the tiebreaker), the Predators only featured one 20-goal scorer and had their work cut out for them against the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings.
Detroit's Achilles' heel that season was its goaltending, as the combination of Manny Legace and Curtis Joseph failed to find consistency. While the heavy underdog, most fans expected Nashville to put up a fight, and they kept pace with the Red Wings, dropping the first two at Joe Louis Arena before winning Games 3 and 4 at home. The Wings turned it on to overpower the Predators, but it gave Nashville fans a taste of Stanley Cup action -- and if you're only going to win two games in a series, it's probably best to win them at all like Nashville did.
The Predators made the playoffs for the second straight season as the NHL resumed play after the lockout, however, the Predators opened up the purse strings after the lockout, shocking fans by signing Paul Kariya to open the salary cap era.
Nashville featured the best scoring depth in its young history, and Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky combined to be a dynamic blueline combination. In net, Tomas Vokoun and Chris Mason split duties for an average .916 save percentage. Nashville opened with a 4-3 win over the San Jose Sharks before losing the next two games by three goals. In the pivotal Game 4, San Jose took a commanding 3-1 series lead in a 5-4 battle before the Sharks sent the Preds home in a five-game series.
Now this wasn't your typical Predators team. In a go-for-it move, the Predators traded for future Hall Of Famer Peter Forsberg (before his several hundred foot surgeries) to flank Paul Kariya, Steve Sullivan, and newly signed Jason Arnott.
With Tomas Vokoun in net and Kimmo Timonen leading the blue line, the Predators took the No. 4 seed with 110 points. They took on a high-powered San Jose Sharks squad in what pundits considered to be a pick 'em series. Nashville was out for revenge, but the result was the same: a 4-1 series loss to the Sharks, with three of the losses by one goal (one in double overtime). Following the season, the Predators saw a major roster dismantle as the team's ownership situation became convoluted with Jim Balsillie's "Make It Seven" campaign.
With a stripped roster -- Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell and Tomas Vokoun all departed over the off-season-- thanks to ownership issues, the Predators managed to stay competitive with the new goaltending duo of Chris Mason and Dan Ellis. As the No. 8 seed, the Predators had a date with the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings.
Much like the 2004 series, Nashville dropped the first two games at Joe Louis Arena, then won two games at home. Unlike 2004, though, Game 5 stayed close and went to overtime before Detroit scored to take control of the series. The Wings closed it out in Nashville, but the Predators navigated a difficult ownership situation to put up a respectable showing against the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
Coming in as the No. 7 seed, the Predators proved down the stretch that they were a team to be feared with only three regulation losses in their final 15 games. The usual Predators combination of scoring-by-committee, defense, grit, and goaltending came together, and the team hit the playoffs in its stride. No one seemed too surprised that Nashville took a 2-1 series lead over the favored Chicago Blackhawks.
The Hawks came back to tie the series, leading to Game 5 and a nightmare moment for Nashville fans: with a one-goal lead on the power play late in the third, the Predators gave up a terrible shorthanded tying goal to Chicago, then lost it in overtime when Marian Hossa broke in. Nashville soon collapsed and Chicago went on to win the Stanley Cup.
With injuries galore hitting the Predators forward line, along with the loss of Dan Hamhuis to free agency, this Nashville squad was built in the proto-typical Barry Trotz mold. However, unlike previous teams, the 2011 Predators featured Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, two of the league's top blueliners, along with a Vezina-nominated year for Pekka Rinne. To close out the series against the Anaheim Ducks, perhaps it was fitting that David Legwand fired the puck into the empty net. In case you forgot, Legwand was the Predators first draft pick in franchise history.
How will this year's tale end? With the Western Conference far from decided, Preds fans can't even look ahead to their next opponent yet. Instead, they'll have to just savor this moment for a day or two while the team does what it does best: get back to work.