Matt Cullen remembers it like it was yesterday.
The No. 2-seeded Carolina Hurricanes dropped the first two games, at home, of its 2006 first-round series against Montreal. A banner regular season for the Hurricanes – the best in franchise history – was on the verge of going up in smoke way too early for anyone’s liking.
After a Game 2 loss in overtime, “I remember Rod Brind’Amour standing up and having a meeting with the guys after the game,” Cullen explained. “We went into Montreal and won the next two, moved on to the next round and it was kind of meant to be.
“There were other times when you have leadership among your team, even from guys who aren’t wearing the letters. A guy like Bret Hedican was really good at pulling a guy aside when things were tough. You just need a group of guys like that who are willing to look out for each other.”
Cullen recorded 18 points in 25 playoff games that spring, playing a role in the Hurricanes capturing their first-ever Stanley Cup. It’s an experience the Predators valued when they signed Cullen to a two-year deal in the off-season.
Over the last three seasons the Predators have only had one player on the roster with Cup-winning experience: Hal Gill, and he was only in Nashville for half that time. With Cullen and fellow off-season signee Viktor Stalberg, now they have two players with Cup rings.
“I always like to have guys who have won somewhere,” Predators GM David Poile said recently. “We don’t have too many guys that have won. It’s such a young team. Stalberg winning the Cup last year, how good is that? We get into the playoffs and he starts telling some stories to the boys, I have to think that’s going to be a real positive situation.”
There were times last spring where it didn’t look like Stalberg and the Chicago Blackhawks would be raising the Cup, though. They faced a 3-1 series deficit in the second round, as well as a 2-1 deficit in the Cup final. But the experience of winning before, in 2010, helped the Blackhawks battle back in a big way during those adverse moments.
“Being in Chicago just gives you that expectancy to win,” Stalberg said. “Every game we expected to win. If we lost, guys didn’t deal with that. We were expecting to win no matter what.”
With just three points in 19 games, Stalberg played a lesser role for last year’s Blackhawks than Cullen did for the 2006 Hurricanes. Stalberg was even benched for four games. But there’s nothing like the experience of winning.
“The swagger you have when you win, that’s what a lot of those guys had. They just walked a little higher with their chests than some of the other guys do. I think that’s what it was. They expected to win, they were winners, they knew how to get it done,” said Stalberg, who became the first player to spend his day with the Cup in his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden.
“That’s something I’m going to try to bring here and get guys to buy in to demanding ourselves to win every night.”
That expectancy to win from the new faces is something that Predators captain Shea Weber likes to have in the room.
“That experience, you can’t just find that anywhere,” he said. “Guys have to go through the battle and win four rounds. Ask anyone of them, it’s not easy. We’re fortunate to have a couple guys that have been through it.”
“The reason why everyone loves veteran players is their experience,” Colin Wilson added. “They know what it takes to get through the bumps in the road. It’s definitely a key part of winning.”
Cullen and Stalberg weren’t signed exclusively because of their Cup-winning experience. They are two players the Predators expect to help improve an offense that finished tied for 30th a season ago. Cullen’s ability to set up scoring chances should be a nice addition to the offense, especially the power play. Stalberg’s speed will be an asset, too, as he assumes a much larger role in Nashville than the one he left in Chicago.
The Predators are a team that has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. They had a taste of success in 2011 and 2012, but winning in the springtime has never been in their DNA. In recent years the mindset has changed from being satisfied with a playoff berth to wanting to win – and win big – when they get there.
If they wish to parade the Cup down Broadway, guys like Cullen and Stalberg who have the experience of winning when it counts will only help.
“It’s such a unique experience, one of those things you hope can bring a little calm and perspective into the room,” Cullen said. “We were lucky (in 2006). We had guys like Rod Brind’Amour and Bret Hedican and Mark Recchi and Doug Weight – we had quite a few guys that had been around for a long time. That’s so important, especially when you get down to those pressure situations in the playoffs when things get heated up.”