Few thought the Nashville Predators had any chance to compete this year.
Early season prognostications had the team doing no more than clawing for a Wild Card spot at the most optimistic. (Stick tap to Jen LC and Dave Lozo, for real though.) Some even put them as a team "most likely to be challenging for last place overall." A divisional spot was unheard of. Winning the division? Preposterous.
Given the lack of success the past two years, and how the roster was taped together with junkyard parts, it was hard to put up an argument.
Yet here we are in the last week of the season and Nashville is in a position no one imagined. They were one of the first teams to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs and the Central crown is a dead heat between them, St. Louis and Chicago. Those two teams were as stone-cold a lock to dance in April as any team can get to start a season, and all year they've kept pace with each other, seizing and relinquishing control in the standings. Being competitive is one thing, but challenging two bona fide Cup contenders is something else entirely.
Change was promised when Barry Trotz was replaced with Peter Laviolette, ending the tenure of the only coach Nashville had ever known. Goodbye grit, hello offense. That notion was backed up by shipping off a blue-collar fan favorite for a sniper with a notorious reputation.
Change was delivered when the Preds roared out of the starting gate, playing a fast and entertaining brand of hockey the city had never seen before. Pekka Rinne quashed any doubts of his return to form, even garnered MVP candidacy for a time. The famed defense got another year older, and Roman Josi emerged from Shea Weber's shadow as possibly the most underrated blue-liner in the NHL. And, on top of it all, a fresh-faced rookie stormed the ice, burning down franchise records and showcasing skill Nashvillians had never seen before.
Now the players, the coaching staff, the front office, and the fan base all have their sights on more than just a playoff berth. No longer is anyone content with just getting into the second season, they're foaming at the mouth to keep shattering the glass ceiling above them. Plenty begged for any sliver of hope for the postseason back in September, now anything less than the second round seems like it'd be a failure. Good. It means the ship has, for now, been steered away from the rocks.
But whatever happens in the next couple of weeks, just remember to take a step back an appreciate how great of a season it's been. How the Predators put the fun back into hockey, after years of disappointment. They weren't supposed to be here, yet they blew the doors off all expectations and made a very loud statement. The last month and a half may have cooled them off from earlier in the year, but it just means they may go overlooked again.
If you've been on board since the first game (or beyond), welcome back. Your usual spot is ready at the table. If you're new to the party, we have plenty of room for you. Take a seat, buckle up, and don't forget to grab a name tag so everyone knows who you are. Ladies and gentlemen, it's been two long, boring summers in Music City. Let's enjoy the ride of which we're about to embark.