On the prowl
How the Predators reached their first Stanley Cup final
Ten years ago the Nashville Predators scooped up future Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg at the trade deadline and finished with the NHL’s third-best record. A deep run seemed inevitable. Instead, the Preds were bounced in the first round and failed to win the first playoff series in team history for another four seasons.
This spring, with the worst record of the 16 playoff teams, the Preds have advanced to the first Stanley Cup final in team history.
How did they do it? Here are a few reasons:
The 34-year-old has sizzled with a .941 save percentage in 16 post-season starts. He was especially superb against Chicago in the first round — stopping 123-of-126 shots — and then again more recently as the Preds closed out the Ducks in the Western Conference final.
The Finn had two special seasons (2010-2012) early in his career with Nashville — a Vezina trophy finalist in each — but was something closer to average after that. He’s tied with Detroit’s Jimmy Howard for the 18th best save percentage (.914) among goalies who started at least 200 games since the start of the 2012-13 season.
None of that matters now.
The engine of everything Nashville is a top-notch defence, fronted by the imposing foursome of P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis — each of whom is averaging more than 24 minutes this spring.
The Preds have gotten 11 goals and 42 points from the defence in these playoffs. But it’s not only about offence.
Nashville is an elite puck possession team, one that’s held opponents to fewer than 30 shots and less than two goals against per-game during the playoffs.
Subban and Ekholm, in particular, managed to control the puck against the Ducks (53 per cent possession) while also neutralizing a previously-dominant Ryan Getzlaf. The Anaheim captain was held to a single assist in the last four games of the series and failed to score even once throughout the conference final.
Filip Forsberg has been pretty good for a while now with an average of 30 goals and 62 points in his first three full NHL seasons. He’s added another eight goals and 15 points in 16 games in these playoffs, dominating with his speed, shot and skill against the Ducks.
Even-strength shot attempts were 109-75 for Nashville (59 per cent) when he was on the ice against Anaheim.
The Swede had a point in every game of the conference final and rides a seven-game point streak into the Cup final.
A must for any Cup contender, the Preds have found meaningful contributions from everywhere. Notable among them is Colton Sissons, who notched a hat trick in Game 6 against the Ducks and has five goals on 14 shots this spring. The former 2012 secondround pick has as many points (10) in 16 playoff games as he had in 58 during the regular season.
Selected 13 spots before Sissons in 2012 was Pontus Aberg, who scored the eventual Game 5 vs. Anaheim and posted a 56 per cent possession mark for the series. Then there’s Austin Watson, a meat-and-potatoes former first-round pick who scored three in the last two games of the conference final. He’s dished out a team-high 81 hits in the playoffs and blocked 21 shots.
Sixteen different players have scored for the Preds in the post-season, including fourth line tough guy Cody McLeod. Nashville notably closed out Anaheim without Ryan Johansen (done for the year with a hip injury), captain Mike Fisher or Kevin Fiala, an emerging former first-round pick.
The Preds fired Barry Trotz, the only coach in franchise history to that point, after missing out on a second straight postseason in 2014.
Enter Peter Laviolette, who won a Cup with Carolina in 2006 and went to the Cup final with Philadelphia in 2010.
Pushing an up-tempo brand of hockey, Laviolette got Nashville back into the playoffs in his first season, into the second round in his second and into the first conference and Cup final for the franchise this spring.
Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonathan Bernier kneels on the ice as Nashville Predators’ Filip Forsberg (left) and Pontus Aberg celebrate a goal by teammate Colton Sissons (not shown) during Game 6 of the Western Conference final in the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs Monday in Nashville, Tenn.