It’s hard to believe that five years have passed since the Nashville Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup Final. To this day, Preds fans can still recount every second of every series with the storytelling depth of Abe Simpson telling the story of the Springfield lemon tree. The Blackhawks sweep, the Sissons hat trick, Freddy Gaudreau’s heroics... there were no shortage of memorable moments.
Part of the reason for this is due to the “out-of-nowhere” nature of the Predators’ run. The Preds were the 16th-ranked team in the playoffs; in fact, two teams in the East who missed the postseason had better records. Apart from that, the Preds limped into the postseason, going 2-4-1 in the last three weeks of the season. They were facing the number one team in the Western Conference, a team who had beaten them in four of the five meetings that season (and had conceded five or more goals in three of those losses). If that wasn’t enough of a mountain to climb, the Preds had to overcome injuries to several key players down the stretch.
Five years later, with the Predators staring at yet another uphill battle, they’ll need to recapture some of that magic.
The Preds are entering their first-round series against the Colorado Avalanche as massive underdogs, and deservedly so. The Avs are coming off their best regular season in franchise history, which is saying something considering the Cup-winning super teams that have come before. Nashville has also been, to put it politely, a mess down the stretch. The last glimpse before the postseason coming in the form of an embarrassing 5-4 loss to the Arizona Coyotes that featured the Preds blowing a four-goal lead. Oh, and their Vezina-caliber goaltender might be out of the first-round series as well.
That’s led to Nashville having the worst money odds to win the Stanley Cup out of any playoff team, and the lowest chance to win a first round series. Pundits have thrown out words like “murder” when predicting this series.
So, is this really going to be the blowout everyone thinks it is?
As many reasons as there are to doubt the Preds, there are also several reasons for optimism. The Preds aren’t some team full of glorified third-liners who got hot at the right time. They have Roman Josi, the Norris Trophy favorite, in the midst of an offensive season the likes of which has not been seen in 30 years. They have a pair of 40-goal-scorers, Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg—only one of three teams to have multiple players hit that mark. We’ve seen bounce-back seasons from the likes of Ryan Johansen and Mikael Granlund, a bruising third line in the form of The Herd Line, and a plethora of other players who have stepped up in a big way this season.
On top of that, the Preds have played respectably well against the Avalanche this season, winning three out of the four matchups. The Predators also play a physical, bruising style of game that even Avs experts agree give the team trouble.
The biggest cliche when it comes to playoff hockey is “anything can happen.” It’s a line oft repeated because... well... the “anything” happens quite a bit. We’ve seen random teams get close to the Cup by virtue of incredible performances from the most random players, so-so goaltenders suddenly become the reincarnation of Martin Brodeur for 20 games, and—sometimes—a little bit of amazing luck.
The 2017 Predators were the embodiment of all of that. Things simply kept falling their way. They went up against one of the NHL’s top offensive teams; Pekka Rinne responded with what might have been the best stretch of goaltending of his legendary career. Injuries befell key players like Kevin Fiala, Mike Fisher, and Ryan Johansen; the likes of Freddy Gaudreau, Pontus Aberg, and Colton Sissons came out of nowhere to have epic postseason performances. The Preds would give up a lead in a game; an ill-timed penalty or weird bounce would help the Preds get momentum right back.
Five years later, maybe the Predators can recapture that same magic. Maybe David Rittich goes on a Dan Ellis-esque run for the ages. Maybe Luke Kunin or Eeli Tolvanen find their form and put up “playoff Colin Wilson” or “playoff Austin Watson” numbers. Maybe the Avs’ top players just, for whatever reason, don’t match up well with the Herd Line.
So yes, Colorado will be the heavy favorites, but they could still get caught in that perfect storm of “everything going right for the Preds.”
And if that happens, we may just see some “2017 magic” in 2022.