#ThrowbackThursday: That Time a Snowstorm Sparked an Improbable Playoff Push

The Predators’ epic finish to the 2008 season, and two eye-popping records, may not have happened if their “plan A” fell into place.

“Maybe there isn’t such a thing as fate. Maybe it’s just the opportunities we’re given, and what we do with them.” -Marissa Meyer

I’ve always been a firm believer that fate is in our own hands.  We get to shape our destinies every day through our actions, our choices, and the interactions we have with those around us.

But I also believe that every once in a while, we need a little push to get us to where we want to be.

For the 2007-2008 Nashville Predators, and their starting goalie Dan Ellis, that push came in the form of a well-timed snowstorm.

An Improbable Hot Start Goes Cold

The team found themselves in an unexpected spot late in March 2008.  Going into the season, most outlets pegged the Predators as a bottom-feeder in the Western Conference, given the on-going ownership/relocation drama, and the loss of several core talents, like Paul Kariya, Tomas Vokoun, Kimmo Timonen, and Scott Hartnell.

But instead, the Preds defied expectations, and thanks to a red-hot stretch between December and February, they found themselves in the middle of the playoff picture.

A big reason for the hot streak was the aforementioned Ellis, a surprise high-note to the season.  The 27-year-old only had one NHL game on his resume before the Predators brought him on as a backup to Chris Mason.  But when Mason, Vokoun’s heir-apparent, struggled to begin the year, Ellis took over and made the most of his opportunity.

But the Predators’ hot start started to cool.  After a 2-1 win against St. Louis that pushed the Preds to a 31-23-6 record in mid-February, the team went on a 5-8-2 skid.  A big reason why — and this may be hard to believe today, wink wink — was poor goaltending.  Ellis was pulled during a number of starts, including back-to-back starts, putting his starting role in doubt.  However, Mason didn’t fare much better, and also found himself pulled from a number of starts.

After a 6-3 loss to the Red Wings, a game in which both goalies struggled, the Predators suddenly found themselves out of a playoff spot, and playing some of their worst hockey of the season.

A Snowstorm Derails a Goaltending Change

So with time running out to turn things around, David Poile dialed up the Milwaukee Admirals.  The plan was to recall their starting goaltender, who was in the middle of a hot streak in the AHL, and give him a shot for the next handful of games.

That goaltender?  A guy named Pekka Rinne.

The plan was for Rinne, who at the time was the AHL’s win leader, to start against the Blackhawks at home on March 22nd, and keep him up for the rest of the season.

Except that didn’t happen.

At the time, the city of Milwaukee was still cleaning up from a major winter storm that had blanketed the area with 15 inches of snow in some parts.  As a result, many major roads shut down, and Mitchell Airport became backlogged with flight delays.

The latter problem threw a wrench into the Predators’ plans.  Rinne had trouble getting a flight to Nashville, and didn’t get to the arena until right before puck drop.  Then-head coach Barry Trotz didn’t want to throw Rinne into the fryer right away, so he decided to make the Finn a healthy scratch, and, instead, gave Ellis the start.

A Record-Setting Streak Begins

Turns out, that wound up being the right call.

Ellis had his most impressive start in months against the Blackhawks, stopping 37 of 38 saves in regulation and overtime, then making two saves in the shootout to help the Preds lock up a 2-1 win.

Despite the big win, there wasn’t really a big vote of confidence for Ellis down the stretch.  Trotz announced the next day that Rinne would remain with the team for the rest of the year, and he would — in no uncertain terms — kind of wing the whole goaltending situation down the stretch.

“It’s motivating, it’s disheartening, it’s frustrating—all of the above. But you have no control over that. If you’re given the opportunity like I was to play, you do your best to help your team out.” – Ellis on Rinne’s call-up, via the Tennessean

Still, Trotz decided to give Ellis the next start, based on his strong showing against the Blackhawks.

Again, right call.

Ellis stopped all 36 shots he faced against the Blue Jackets, his fifth shutout of the season and first in more than two months, leading the Preds to a 3-0 win.  Three nights later, Ellis would get the start again in a rematch against Columbus.  This performance was even more impressive than the last.  Ellis faced 43 shots, and kept every single one out of the net — back-to-back shutouts — en route to a 2-0 win.

Two nights later, Ellis would make his fourth consecutive start, this time at Joe Louis Arena against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Red Wings.  Once again, Ellis would go sixty minutes without allowing a goal, making 35 saves in the process.  Except, this time, the Predators couldn’t back up his performance with scoring on the other end.  The game would go to overtime, where Johan Franzen would finally score to end Ellis’s epic shutout streak.

233 minutes and 39 seconds.

That number, at the time, was the third-longest shutout streak in modern NHL history, and the 18th all-time.  Needless to say, it’s also a Predators record that still stands today.

More importantly, Ellis’s performance backstopped the Preds to a end-of-season surge.  Ellis started all but one game for the remainder of the season, and the team’s 5-1-1 finish was just enough to leapfrog Edmonton and Vancouver into the 8th and final playoff spot.

An Impressive Playoff Run

In a two-week span, Ellis went from fighting for his job on a team outside the playoff picture, to the no-brainer starter in Round One.

The Predators would lose the series in six games to the Red Wings, but Ellis was once again the team’s bright spot.  He’d finish the postseason with a .938 save percentage, and made at least 38 saves in five of his six games.  That includes a 52-save performance in Game 5, which still a team single-game record.

The Rest is (Also) History

The Predators rewarded Ellis with a two-year extension at the end of the year, and expected him to be the starter the next year.  Unfortunately, Ellis couldn’t recapture his magic from the end of 2008.  After a 8-11-3 start, the Predators moved forward with a franchise-changing decision.

They relegated Ellis to backup, and named Pekka Rinne the full-time starter.

We know how the rest of that story unfolds.  Rinne has become one of the best players in franchise history, and will — when the time comes — be the first Predators player to have his number in the Bridgestone Arena rafters.

Still, Ellis’s improbable four-week run has its own place in Predators’ lore.  His 233-minute shutout streak and 52 saves in a game are two records that’ll be difficult to break.  And he’ll be remembered as a guy who almost single-handedly snuck the Predators into one of their more memorable playoff appearances in team history.

All which might not have happened if the weather in Milwaukee was a little more enjoyable.