For the second time in two weeks, the Nashville Predators are about to embark on a Game 7 journey that will decide whether they advance or have their season come to an end.
Unlike last time, however, this Game 7 can bring them to a level the franchise has never achieved before: the Western Conference Final.
Wrap your brain around that.
“You try to focus on just the game but, at the same time, you do think about it,” goaltender Pekka Rinne admitted. “No matter what, one team is going to the Western Conference Final. You realize that, keep that in your mind and know what’s at stake.”
The Preds take on the San Jose Sharks out in Northern California tonight with the winner advancing to the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. When the puck drops at 8pm Central, Nashville hopes for a little déjà vu.
They beat the Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 on April 25 to force that series to go the distance. Once it did, Nashville prevailed again and, therefore, punched their ticket to San Jose.
Likewise this time around, the Preds had to win Game 6 to create Thursday’s dramatic tilt. As a result, Nashville is now 3-0 in elimination games during these playoffs.
“There’s a lot of confidence in our group that we can go into San Jose and play a game that we’re proud of,” head coach Peter Laviolette said. “It’s really no different than the two Game 6’s and the Game 7 that we’ve already taken on. With that comes a little bit of confidence.”
“I think it helps that we’ve already played a few games where we had to win,” Rinne added. “So it’s the same mindset: be focused but be loose and relaxed.”
Believe it or not, a team can, in fact, be both. Prior to Game 7 against Anaheim, numerous reporters came out of the Nashville locker room saying they appeared to be loose. The Ducks, on the other hand, more of the opposite.
It’s up to the older players to set that tone. If Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissons and Viktor Arvidsson look around the room and see Shea Weber, Paul Gaustad and Mike Fisher cutting up and joking around, they’re more prone to forget about (or at least not dwell on) the enormity of what lies before them.
Another one of those older players is defenseman Barret Jackman. He’s well aware of just how special a chance to play for the Cup is.
“You never know when the next opportunity is to even be in the playoffs, let alone fight for second round, third round or to get into the Final,” said Jackman, a 13-year NHL vet. “It’s a hard thing to win and you have to take advantage of every opportunity.”
The Trail, British Columbia native would know. He spent 12 seasons with the St. Louis Blues – the opponent for tonight’s winner – before signing with the Preds last summer. Prior to donning the smilodon on his chest, Jackman went to the playoffs seven times but, despite his team finishing second or higher in the division in six of those seven, he never got past the second round.
“This [is] the best opportunity so far of my career,” Jackman said. “You never know when the next chance is going to be. I’m looking at it as this could be my last opportunity and I’m going to do everything I can to convey that to the guys and go out there and perform.”
By “the guys” he means “the younger players.” Nashville has 14 skaters (Black Aces excluded) that are 25 years of age or younger. Talent can get you so far but mixing talent with experience is a recipe for success.
“Our group is young,” Laviolette said. “We’ve got four rookies in the lineup – six on the roster – and some second-year players. Generally speaking, we’re a young group. Any experience you can gain inside the playoffs, inside of life or inside of hockey, those are experiences you can use moving forward.”
When asked about whether or not a spot in the Conference Final can be that extra motivator when a player is gassed at the end of a shift or when he needs to take one more stride on the backcheck, Rinne immediately eluded to experience.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I think you saw that last game. We got down 2-0 and the way we responded was awesome. It’s going to be the same mindset [in Game 7] knowing that you’re one step away from the Western Conference Final.”
One step away. Wrap your brain around that.
PHOTO CREDIT: The Canadian Press