With their backs against the wall having lost star center Ryan Johansen for the rest of the playoffs, and captain Mike Fisher for an undetermined period of time, the Nashville Predators reeled off two improbable wins against the Anaheim Ducks to reach the first Stanley Cup finals in franchise history.
Of the 19 players that took the ice for the Preds in Monday night’s series-clinching win, 12 of them spent considerable time with the Milwaukee Admirals. Viktor Arvidsson, Miika Salomaki and Colton Sissons all earned their call ups last season. Not but two years removed from full-time roles with the Admirals, all three made their mark on the Western Conference Finals. Pontus Aberg, Frederick Gaudreau and Austin Watson all spent time in Milwaukee this season. Now, they are playing big-time minutes for a Stanley Cup team.
Colton Sissons is tied for fourth on the team in playoff scoring with 10 points, and his five playoff goals are tied for second on the Preds. He assumed the top-center role when Johansen went down with season-ending surgery and Mike Fisher missed Games 5 and 6 with an undisclosed injury.
“It was a wild ride so far this year, a lot of challenges for me personally, obviously being out of the lineup,” Sissons said. “I just wanted to be a regular guy playing every single night to now arguably a one or two center for us with Joey and Fish out. It's been a wild ride, but it feels good and I'm just enjoying it.”
In his first game in his new role, he assisted on Colin Wilson’s game-tying power play goal. He was the hero of Game 6, becoming just the second player in franchise history to record a playoff hat trick (Filip Forsberg is the other). He also became just the fifth player in the last 40 seasons to score a hat trick in a series-clinching game to reach the Cup finals.
“It feels good, man,” Sissons said. “I'm not going to lie. Obviously I don't think I even dreamt this moment, scoring a hat trick in a Western Conference-clinching game. I can't speak enough for just our whole group. We've been through some challenges together and we stuck together no matter what, just believed and here we are.”
“For me, when Fish and Joey came out of the lineup, we knew that we had a really big player, big man in Getzlaf on the other side,” Peter Laviolette added. “And when we made that move, we wanted somebody that we thought physically could at least play against him, because it's more than just being a good player. He's a mountain of a man out there. And Colton was the guy that we thought could handle that responsibility just from a size matchup.
“Colton's answered all the challenges that we've asked of him lately. Tonight, I think, was just…his game tonight went to another level. The goals are one thing, but the way he competed, the way he defended, the penalties he killed, the faceoff battles he got into. The hits that he took, the hits that he gave, he was…that's the best I've seen him.”
Austin Watson is a guy who very easily could be playing hockey elsewhere. Placed on waivers at the beginning of the season, Watson went unclaimed and was sent back down to Milwaukee. He earned a call up shortly thereafter and never looked back. He chipped in goals in Games 1 and 5, kicked off the scoring in Game 6, and added an empty netter to seal the victory that sent Nashville to its first-ever Stanley Cup Finals.
“Again, Austin was a guy that was caught up and down at the beginning real quick just for a couple of games,” Laviolette said. “When he came back, for me, it was a year-long season for him, where he worked every day to show what he was as a player -- kind of the same conversation we had with Colton.
“It was very clear who he was as a player. I think he even expanded on that in the Playoffs -- his physicality, his durability, his commitment and will to win to be successful, to take on the hard jobs, blocking shots, taking hits, giving hits, fighting people. Those are tough jobs. I think he's done a terrific job, not only all year, but certainly again another guy in the Playoffs who's expanded from his regular season and become a better player.”
Pontus Aberg served primarily as a depth forward for Nashville before being thrust into a top-six role following Game 4, and he handled that spotlight well. A 30-goal scorer with the Admirals, the 5-foot-11 Swede scored the game-winning goal in Game 5, and also added two assists in Nashville’s Game 6 win. He has thrived on the top six and has raised his level of play with more skill around him.
“The players that we put into those situations have handled it so incredibly well for our team that we're able to continue to move on,” Laviolette said. “Guys coming in and out of the lineup, Salomaki, certainly Aberg and Gaudreau and Sissons, those guys moving up in minutes. But you need that through the Playoffs.”
It’s no surprise that Nashville is finding success with its home-grown talent. Milwaukee is a perennial Calder Cup contender, reaching the AHL playoffs in 14 of the last 15 seasons. From top to bottom, it’s clear that the Nashville Predators know how to run an organization.
“I've said it so many times that Dean Evason, Stan Drulia and Scott Ford, they deserve so much credit...David Rook, the goaltending coach, they deserve so much credit for the development of these players, because when they're coming in and out of the lineup up here, they're younger down there,” Laviolette said. “And not only are they a successful team in the minors, but every time they come up, they're better hockey players.
“It's a credit to the coaches down there. It's a credit to the development that Nashville puts into the young players. They draft them. They spend the time. They put the hours in to make these guys hockey players. When they get up here, it's not always a seamless transition. But there's a process. But so much credit goes to the coaching staff. And Paul Fenton, the general manager down there. So much credit goes to those guys for the team they build down there and the way they develop the players.”