It was a crazy season in Smashville with a whole lot of twists and turns, highs and lows, and unexpected comebacks. Despite the disappointing playoff exit, this was one of the most memorable seasons in Predators franchise history.
Here are the top five storylines from the 2011-12 season that was…
1. Beating Detroit in the first round
It’s a result the Predators have found themselves on the short end of in the past.
In 2004 and 2008, the Red Wings were heavy favorites going into series against the eighth-seeded Predators at the time. Barry Trotz’s club gave the Presidents’ Trophy winners their best punch in both postseasons, but Detroit’s counter punch was too strong.
Fast forward four years.
The Predators, pre-series favorites, saw Detroit’s best effort. Mike Babcock may have called his team’s Game Five performance the “worst of the series,” but the Predators had to consistently fend off a desperate Red Wings team throughout the series. And they did so successfully in three straight games, including twice in the vaunted Joe Louis Arena to finish off a hard-fought series.
Similar playoff script, different outcome.
“It hasn’t sunk in,” Trotz said after last night’s series-clinching win. “We used to look up to Detroit, feeling that we were a little inferior in terms of talent or whatever it may be. We were maybe a little bit in awe of them. I think we’ve grown to the point where we have a great respect for the Detroit Red Wings, but we’re not in awe of them.
“That’s the stepping stone that we’ve taken.”
Detroit has always been Nashville’s measuring stick, as well as the gold standard in the Western Conference and NHL. The Predators could never get over that hump, whether it was on the ice, in the standings, or in the playoffs. They just could not beat Detroit when it mattered.
Not much has really separated the two teams in recent years, especially in their previous playoff matchups. Fourteen of their 17 meetings in the ‘second season’ have been decided by two goals or less.
The Predators competed with the Red Wings in 2006 and 2007 for the division titles, but the old guard would always tend to beat the inexperienced whenever David had the chance to knock down Goliath.
Nothing could go right for the Predators in what has, up to this point, been considered a one-sided rivalry. The most memorable example came when Nicklas Lidstrom scored a fluke goal from center ice to seal their first-round series in 2008.
But the shoe was on the other foot in this latest chapter of what could now be considered a legitimate rivalry.
Paul Gaustad’s goal in Game One bounced in off a Detroit defenseman’s skate. Kevin Klein’s clutch shot block in Game Three saved a one-goal lead in the third period. Alexander Radulov’s pass to Gabriel Bourque ricocheted off a Detroit player’s skate, which resulted in Bourque scoring a big goal in Game Four.
Everything that may have gone wrong four or eight years ago against Babcock’s club finally went right here in 2012 for the Predators, who also finished ahead of the Red Wings in the standings this season for the first time in franchise history.
“They have such a great team, great organization with a lot of history with a lot of success,” Rinne said of beating Detroit. “It was a great chance for us to play against the Detroit Red Wings and beat them in five games.”
In past years, the Predators may have viewed beating Detroit in the playoffs as a crowning achievement. Not now, and that’s a part of this postseason being ‘different’ in Music City.
The post-game locker room last night was slightly joyous, yet more reserved than one would assume, just moments after one of the biggest wins in the franchise’s history.
“You can’t get too high. A lot of teams win in the first round,” Ryan Suter said. “We have to stay level-headed and be ready to show up for work next week.”
Things have changed in Nashville. Everything is viewed in the bigger picture. Taking down Detroit in the playoffs is nice for the franchise and a moment that has been a long time coming – but in the grand scheme of things it’s just another stepping stone along the way.
“It’s not time to celebrate; it’s only the first round,” Alexander Radulov said. “Yeah, we’re happy that we beat Detroit, but everyone in this locker room wants to go forward and win more.”
2. Alexander Radulov returns from Russia
Alexander Radulov was officially introduced by the Nashville Predators this morning, as the team lifted the suspension that will allow him to return to the lineup immediately. The 25-year-old Russian could not wipe the smile off of his face.
“It’s about time,” Radulov said. “It’s good to be back here. I feel good and I look forward to helping the team be better.”
It’s well-known that Radulov has spent the last four years in the Kontinental Hockey League after abruptly leaving Nashville in the summer of 2008. Some feel it’s a dicey situation for the Predators to bring Radulov back this late in the season, but general manager David Poile is confident that will not be the case.
“I honestly don’t think there’s going to be a problem,” Poile said today. “There are (seven) players that played here in Alex’s last year. I’ve seen in the last 15 to 20 minutes, from his interaction with our players and staff, that there is absolutely going to be no problem.”
Radulov’s KHL team, Salavat Yulaev Ufa, was eliminated from the playoffs on March 9. From then on the speculation snowballed that Radulov could be making his much-anticipated return to the Music City.
“It’s a good opportunity to come back,” Radulov said. “I always thought I may come back and make my return to the NHL because it’s a good league and all the best players are playing here.”
When asked whether he thought this moment would happen in the past, Poile said, “He never let me down. Every time I talked to him he told me he was coming back.”
Radulov agreed, “That’s true.”
Poile greeted Radulov last night after landing at the Nashville International Airport. Poile said that Radulov hugged him when they first saw each other.
“I was nervous a little bit yesterday when David picked me up at the airport,” Radulov said with a chuckle. “When the general manager picks you up at the airport – I don’t how to say it. It’s good.”
There have been questions about whether Radulov will return to the KHL next season. Radulov said that he made zero promises to the KHL when he left. Poile and the Predators are not worried about that at this time, however. They are just happy to see the whites of Radulov’s eyes, and will be happier to see him in the lineup at the most important time of the season.
“It’s good to be back,” Radulov reiterated.
3. Radulov, Andrei Kostitsyn suspended for Game Three vs. Phoenix
When the Predators hit the ice tomorrow night for Game Three against Phoenix, they will be without two of their more dynamic forwards.
Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn were suspended today for a violation of team rules, a decision that Predators GM David Poile said was an easy one to make.
“I’ve been a general manager for 30 years and always try to treat each individual player with care, but never ever put the individual player ahead of the team. In this situation, both of these players violated a team rule,” Poile said. “It’s very disappointing. Obviously, any time something like this would happen would be disappointing. In the playoffs it’s even more so, to take out of the lineup two of your better hockey players.
“We’ve put the team ahead of a couple individual players and we’ll see where we go from here.”
Poile would not go into the details of the rule violation, but did express disappointment in the actions of two players that he picked up late in the season for this time of year.
“What they did was unacceptable. The coaches and myself had to come to the plate and do the right thing for the team,” Poile said. “It’s really unfortunate, it’s selfish behavior – we’ll just have to leave it at that.”
Head coach Barry Trotz added, “The Nashville Predators are about a team, they are about accountability, and they are a team that you expect certain rules and behaviors to be followed. They weren’t so there are consequences – plain and simple.”
Radulov expressed some remorse for his actions during his brief meeting with the media following today’s practice.
“Obviously I’m disappointed and understand that is was my mistake, and I really hope everything is going to work out for the team,” he said.
Poile mentioned that this situation has been a “big distraction” for the team. However, the players know they won without Radulov and Kostitsyn before they were obtained, and they believe they can win without them in Game Three.
“We’ve won all year with everyone and it’s going to take everyone to continue to win,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “Tomorrow night, whoever is going to play, the 20 guys that are in the lineup have to come out and play the way we are capable of playing.”
Captain Shea Weber added, “(Radulov and Kostitsyn) are great offensively, but there are guys chomping at the bit that have been practicing hard and staying in shape; they are ready to go. There are other guys that contribute here and it’s going to be a team effort.”
Both Suter and Weber said they had no say in the suspensions and that the decision was up to Poile and Trotz.
As Weber mentioned, some motivated players that have not played in recent games are going to get a chance to prove themselves tomorrow night. In Game Two it was Colin Wilson; tomorrow it could be the likes of Matt Halischuk and Jordin Tootoo, who have yet to play in this series.
“We talked back before the playoffs started that (we’re) going to need everybody,” Trotz said. “(Radulov and Kostitsyn) are not available tomorrow, and two guys are going to go in and have to get the job done.
“We just [have to] go back to our team game. Let’s go back to Predator Hockey. Let’s go back to our identity, play that team game, be determined on the puck, be a little bit relentless, make sure we’re taking care of business on both sides of the puck and go from there. That’s plain and simple; that’s what we have to do.”
Trotz would not say whether Radulov or Kostitsyn would be available for Friday’s Game Four.
“We’ll just see how Game Three goes,” he said. “Right now they are out for the one game.”
4. Pekka Rinne signed to a seven-year extension
Today the Predators signed goaltender Pekka Rinne to a seven-year, $49 million contract, easily the biggest in franchise history. It was the first step to re-signing the ‘big three’, which as you know includes Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
Following a season in which he was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy and finished fourth in the Hart Trophy voting, Rinne has proven to be a top-flight NHL goaltender and is in the prime of his career. Though some criticize David Poile for spending $7 million a year on a goaltender, the general manager is confident in the investment.
“In our estimation, we’ve signed the best goaltender in the National Hockey League,” Poile said in a conference call this afternoon. “Pekka gives us the best opportunity moving forward to backstop the Nashville Predators’ quest to win a Stanley Cup.
“Clearly, Pekka is an elite player in the NHL.”
Predators chairman Tom Ciggaran added, “We see it as an investment for the present, and the future.
“(Pekka) not only wants to win, but he wants to bring a Stanley Cup to Nashville. Ownership is committed to Pekka and his teammates to doing what it takes to make that a reality.”
Of course, now the question becomes whether the Preds can retain the other two pieces of the team’s main core – Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
“Our goal in Nashville is to retain our core,” Poile said. “This signing is the first step of that process.”
Ciggaran added, “The money is there to sign these guys, and we have every intent in doing it.”
Obviously, the man of the day is Rinne. On top of the new contract, it is his 29th birthday. Rinne will see a big increase in salary next year, from $3.4 to $7 million; also included in his contract is a no-trade clause. Most importantly, though, Nashville is the placed he wanted to stay for the long haul, and he wanted to get the extension done as quick as possible.
“This is a special day for me and my family,” Rinne said. “The biggest thing, my first choice since the start was to stay in Nashville. Since the start (of negotiations), the sooner the better so we get that contract done. I feel very fortunate with the help of ownership and my agent that we got it done.”
Rinne said that the unknown future of Weber and Suter did not play into his decision process.
“You can only make choices on your own,” Rinne said. “I know we are doing our best to get them to sign here. This is my decision. I was the first one out of three to sign, and hopefully those two guys are next.”
Ciggaran hopes locking up Rinne long-term is the first step towards solidifying the franchise as a consistent Stanley Cup contender.
“Our ownership group came together a couple years ago to make sure the franchise stayed in Nashville. That’s no longer a question,” he said. “Today our goal is to have a Stanley Cup winner in Nashville and Pekka’s signing is a big step towards that goal.”
5. Predators come back again and again
The Nashville Predators never feel like they are out of a game. It may sound cliché, but if the first half of their season proved anything, it’s that the Preds are capable of winning no matter what kind of deficit they face.
This season, the Preds have made five comebacks in 17 instances when trailing after the second period, good for the highest percentage in the NHL through Monday’s action. That’s not counting other comeback wins when facing other deficits, whether it’s late in the game or by two goals.
With all of their comebacks this season, most in dramatic fashion, it may be safe to call the Predators – the youngest team in the league, not to mention – the ‘comeback kids’. What is their key to success when they find themselves trailing on the scoreboard in key moments?
“I think the biggest thing is the belief we can do it,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “We try to get back in the game with one goal and build momentum going forward. Maybe teams start second guessing themselves and then it’s our time to shine.”
The Preds have frustrated opponents to no end this season with their abundance of comebacks. Following a win against Columbus on Dec. 22 where the Preds trailed by three goals after the first period, 4-1, and won the game, 6-5, with 8.4 seconds left in regulation, Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger emphatically broke his stick in half on the boards and subsequently sat on the bench with his head in his hands. That’s just one example.
On four consecutive Thursdays in December, the Preds pulled off a dramatic comeback win. Aside from the aforementioned game against the Jackets, the Preds were trailing 3-1 in Columbus on Dec. 8 with less than two minutes remaining. Barry Trotz’s gang scored twice in the final 96 seconds and won, 4-3, in overtime. That win came a week before Shea Weber scored twice in the final five minutes to top rival Detroit, 4-3, at home.
“I think if you have belief in the system and your team, you realize that if you go down a couple goals you can come back,” forward Colin Wilson said.
The Preds also have comeback wins over Washington and Colorado at home, Vancouver and San Jose on the road.
“Those wins build confidence and belief,” Wilson said. “We’ve come back a lot, so when we go down 2-0 we come in the dressing room confident we can come back since we’ve been there before.”
Obviously, Wilson and the Preds don’t want to be in position to have to make all of these comebacks. They don’t want to spot the opposition a 2-0 or 3-0 lead. In most of these aforementioned cases the Preds have trailed by two or three goals early in the game, forcing them to battle back for the rest of the game.
“That’s something we have to work on,” Wilson said. “It’s a lot better playing with the lead. Sometimes we play better without the lead and coming back, but we have to learn how to get the lead and play with it.”
Said Rinne, “Obviously we don’t want to put ourselves in that situation where we are down two or three goals and have to rally back. Fortunately we’ve been pretty good at it.”
Speaking with a lot of experience just from this season, Trotz believes you just have to move on and not get frustrated with the mistakes that led to the early deficit.
“You have to mentally park it for a second and sort of move forward,” he said. “If there’s something that we learned, maybe we learned something in the playoffs. Things are going to change and you just have to deal with it, good or bad, and you have to deal with it the proper way. … I think we’ve learned a few lessons in the past.”
The playoff reference focuses on the previous two postseasons where the Preds have been on the giving and receiving end of comebacks in crucial games. In Game 5 in Chicago two years ago, the Preds blew a late lead and lost in overtime. A year later in almost the same scenario, the Preds beat the Ducks in Game 5 with a late game-tying goal and overtime winner.
From now through the rest of the season, opponents will have to be wary of one- or two-goal leads in late-game situations – because the Predators sure know how to erase those deficits when their backs are against the wall. As Trotz would say, and Rinne reiterated, coming back to win games is now in their DNA.
“No matter what the situation is,” Rinne said, “this team realizes there is still a chance until the final buzzer.”