Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 19, 2024

A loss is a win in unlikeliest of winning seasons for Predators

Nashville Predators players have had much to celebrate during the last couple of months, but none bigger than the 18-game scoring streak that propelled them into the playoffs. - Photo by Mark Humphrey | AP

Not many losses feel like wins, but that’s exactly what happened when the Nashville Predators fell to the Winnipeg Jets 4-3 in overtime April 9 at Bridgestone Arena.

The one standings point the Predators earned for the game was precious, as it clinched a spot in the postseason for a team that very few, if any, predicted would be playing anything but golf at the conclusion of the 82-game regular season.

The Bridgestone crowd brought thunderous applause as the final seconds of regulation time in that game counted down, as they knew playoff hockey was about to return to Smashville.

This was supposed to be a season of transition for the Predators. With Barry Trotz sitting in the general manager’s seat for the first time, Andrew Brunette behind the bench for his first season as head coach and many roster spots turned over from last season, 2023-24 was looked at as one of a retool for a team whose playoff absence in 2022-23 followed eight-consecutive postseason appearances.

“I’m proud of the process that we believed in and the confidence that we had and trust in what we do,” Brunette said after the game. “I’m proud of where we’re at, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

But something happened to that transition, punctuated by a magical almost six-week run that saw the Predators go undefeated in regulation time in 18-consecutive games at 16-0-2.

That run vaulted them from the outside looking in to firmly established in the playoff discussion. And it came on the heels of an embarrassing 9-2 home loss to the Dallas Stars that so infuriated Trotz and Brunette that an early departure to Las Vegas to see U2 at the Sphere was canceled, showing the team that the general manager and coach knew they had more to give and subpar effort would not be tolerated.

Asked if he had any personal satisfaction for his team exceeding others’ expectations, Brunette indicated it fed him as a player and continues to feed him as a coach.

“Being an underdog, you kind of wear it and you are proud of it,” Brunette says. “You wake up every morning, there’s no better motivation than proving people wrong. Maybe we wear that a little bit. I wore that my whole playing career and I continue to wear it in my coaching career.”

The Predators didn’t just back into a playoff position, either, they clinched with a week left in the regular season and will be the top wild card team in the Western Conference.

Now Brunette has the challenge of preparing his team to play playoff hockey. As much as the coaching staff has to do with getting a team ready for the playoffs, Brunette indicated that the veteran leadership that has carried the team all season will be invaluable in getting them ready for the postseason.

As part of Trotz’s roster makeover, he brought in character players, including a couple with their names already etched onto the Stanley Cup.

Both center Ryan O’Reilly and defenseman Luke Schenn were signed as free agents in the offseason. O’Reilly won the Cup with the St. Louis Blues in 2019, and Schenn won back-to-back Cups in 2020 and 2021 with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh also was part of both Lightning Cup wins.

Just enough rest?

One of Brunette’s main challenges is something that is out of his control. A quirk in the schedule has the Predators going almost a week between the end of the regular season game and their first playoff game. There’s a fine line between rest being good for the players after a long 82-game season and getting stale with the long layoff.

 “I think the biggest thing is when you have momentum, you’ve got to work almost even harder to keep it because you don’t want to lose it,” Brunette says. “I think that’s where our focus is right now.”

The Predators had 10 days off at the start of February with the combination All-Star break and bye week. The fateful loss to the Stars came in their third game back from that break. Thankfully for them, they snapped out of that funk quickly.

After clinching a playoff spot, Brunette used the last three games of the regular season as an opportunity to give some rest to some of his players, and at the same time give some players who haven’t been regulars in the lineup the opportunity to get into some game action.

Goaltender Juuse Saros is one of the players who got a little time off following the Winnipeg game. Saros is at the top of the list of games played for all NHL goaltenders this season and the Predators will lean heavily on Saros if they plan to have any postseason success this year.

When the Predators were swept by the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the 2022 playoffs, Saros was unavailable due to a high-ankle sprain. While Saros’ career NHL playoff record is just 3-7, his save percentage is a respectable .914.

Just making the playoffs isn’t enough for this group of Predators players and coaches. Now that they are in, they are looking to continue to surprise those on the outside who won’t be giving them much of a chance.

When the Predators made their only ever appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, they were a wild card team. Trotz, Brunette and company hope that 2024 will be the second time the team advances that far as a wild card team.