In their final 25 games of the regular season, the Nashville Predators went 9-14-2. A far cry from their 38-11-8 run to start the campaign.
Despite their struggles in March and April, they still finished second in the Central Division and third overall in the Western Conference. But you know what all that means at this time of year? Absolutely nothing. And, to a man, they all echo that sentiment.
“The season’s over. Who cares? What matters is Wednesday,” center Mike Ribeiro said.
“It doesn’t matter if we won 10 in a row or lost 10 in a row, we’re here now,” defenseman Ryan Ellis said.
“Everything up until this point is gone and out the window. It starts right now,” forward Craig Smith said.
You know, maybe there’s something to that. After all, the 16 teams that made the playoffs are sitting at 0-0 this very moment.
Of course, Nashville Head Coach Peter Laviolette has seen this song and dance before. His 2006 Carolina Hurricanes went 1-2-2 in the final couple weeks of the season before going onto win the Stanley Cup. Then, four years later, his Philadelphia Flyers limped into the postseason by going 5-8-2 in their last 15 but would go all the way to the Final before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in overtime of Game Six.
So while some (okay, most) are nervous because of how the Predators finished down the stretch, perhaps the four day gap is exactly what they needed in order to put their struggles behind them.
“There’s absolutely a break,” Laviolette said. “We do get that clean division from the end of the regular season to where we’re going on Wednesday night. Certainly there’s a lot of excitement that goes with that as you drive to the rink. Even in practice and then certainly on Wednesday as game day approaches.”
That said, the Blackhawks were struggling at the end of the year as well. They sputtered to a 5-7-0 record in their final 12 contests and, while they expect superstar forward Patrick Kane back in the lineup, one imagines that a fast start by the Predators could get into their heads a bit.
“It’s big,” Laviolette said about Game One. “The best thing for our team to do is try to stay where we’ve been at all year, focus on the one game. I’m sure there’s statistics out there that tell you if somebody wins Game One [how successful they’ll be].”
As a matter of fact there are. According to TSN, the team that wins the first game of a seven-game series goes onto win said series 63% of the time. And if it’s the home team? An overwhelming 70% success rate.
Nashville forward Matt Cullen has been around this game a long time. As a matter of fact, he was on that Carolina team that won it all in 2006 with Laviolette behind the bench. After 1,212 regular season NHL games (as well as 68 playoff games), he knows a thing or two about strong starts.
“I think it’s really important, no question,” Cullen said about winning that first game. “When you have two teams that didn’t necessarily play their best hockey down the stretch, it becomes even more important. We know that. We’re a confident team. One game isn’t going to make or break the series but it’s a very important one and we’re treating it that way.”
“It doesn’t matter what happens, if we lose or win, we can’t get too high or too low,” Roman Josi said. “It’s a seven-game series and we’ve just got to find a way to win four games. Doesn’t matter how we get there. We’ve just got to make sure we stay level-headed and keep going.”
Losing Game One would do more than just make a dent in Nashville’s confidence but it would also relinquish the home ice advantage they worked so hard for all season long.
“We want to keep that home ice advantage the best we can,” defenseman Cody Franson said. “Every team that comes into a building on the road looks for the split in the first two games. If they get the first one then they push for the second one. If we can get that first one, it’ll put more pressure on them.”
Chicago has won two of the last five Stanley Cups. Despite their struggles at the end of this regular season, they’re a team that knows how to win. Nashville can ill afford to give them any confidence early on, let alone a one game advantage.
“We have a lot of confidence in this group.” Josi said. “Obviously Game One is huge just to be up 1-0. Plus, we’re playing at home so we definitely want to win both of those games.”
“There’s been teams that have won nine out of 10 down the stretch but lost in the first round,” Laviolette said. “There’s no set formula. History has proven that.”
We’ll see what history has in store for the Predators when the puck drops Wednesday night at 7:30pm Central.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jeremy K. Gover // TheGameNashville.com