Last night was the most significant win in the young history of the Nashville Predators.
It was not the best game the Predators ever played. It was not an upset or a comeback for the ages. It was not a dominant performance. It didn't include the greatest goals, saves, or hits in Predator history. It wasn't a game that will go down in the NHL history books for anything that happened on the ice. It was simply the marking of a rite of passage...the younger brother coming to age and becoming a man, face-to-face with the older brother who had been not only a man for many years, but had been THE man.
Our first season in the league came at the heals of back-to-back Stanley Cup championships for the Red Wings. Their domination was so complete that they won both of their cups without yielding a single game to their Eastern Conference opponents, sweeping both Washington and Philadelphia. In the two previous seasons, they lost in the '95 Cup finals to New Jersey, and lost in the '96 Conference Finals to Colorado. Between 1995 and 2003, the Cup was won by one of three teams (DET, NJ, COL) each year except for 1999 when Dallas beat Buffalo. With six Cup appearances and four wins in the last 16 seasons, no team has seen as much success as the Wings since Gretzky's Oilers in the late 80's.
I remember how the team was in awe of the Red Wings the first time we played (a common theme for years to come). We were short-handed 10 times and gave up 5 goals in Detroit in the fifth game of our franchise history, and the first ever Conference/Division game. We would not go short-handed that many times for nearly four seasons. Our first home game against Detroit was the day before Christmas Eve, and we beat Detroit 5-3, even though we gave up 53 shots. The crowd seemed to have more Detroit fans than Predator fans, full of transplants from the local auto plants...another trend that continued for years. The next game was a home win against the Cup finalist Capitals the day after Christmas, capping our only three-game win streak of the first season. Beating the two defending Conference champions in back-to-back games at home was the first step that showed the new fan base that our team could compete with the big boys. They finished the year 1-5 against big brother.
The next season saw another home win and an over-time loss in Detroit, finishing 1-4-0-1. In our third season, an overtime win at the Joe a la Cliff Ronning allowed us to split the season series 2-2-1 with the Wings--two more notches on the measuring stick. 2003-04 saw our next series tie with a 3-2-0-1 record, leading to our first playoff appearance. We split the series in two of the next three seasons, before getting our first series win against Detroit in 08-09 with a 4-2 record. That was also the first time we ever outscored the Red Wings in a season series.
How do you define poetic justice? David Legwand scored the winning goal yesterday. The oft-maligned Michigan native always seems to rise to the challenge playing against his hometown team. His first game against the Red Wings was a home game in our second season...yes, he scored the game winner that time, too. Our first home play-off game...saw Leggie score a short-handed goal against the Wings to open the scoring in the winning effort that nearly brought the roof down. He was our first draft pick, the First Star last night, and was the first Predator in line to shake hands with the Red Wings after the final horn sounded.
Our first playoff series in franchise history was an 8th seed match-up against Detroit. We led the first game 1-0 going into the third period...Michigan-native Adam Hall scored the first goal of the game in less than a minute into the first period. After giving up 3 goals and the game in the third period, the team returned to the Joe with a 1-1 game until a lucky bounce off the boards and Vokoun's skates gave the Wings a lead with less than 3 minutes left in the game. We won the next two games at home, before Detroit was able to convert early first period chances in each of Games 5 & 6 to take control of the series.
Our next series against Detroit was in '08 when they won the President's Trophy and went on to win the Cup. The first four games were won once again by the home team, with several lucky bounces and controversial officiating. Game 3 was an emotional come-from-behind victory that saw 2 third period goals in 9 seconds culminating with the biggest check into the boards ever given by Radulov...unfortunately it resulted in a concussion to the recipient, Arnott. Game 5 was viewed on the jumbo-tron by Nashville fans in the Arena as we had several chances to take a 3-2 lead in the series with a game that was decided in OT. Once again, Detroit took care of business in Nashville in Game 6 to seal the deal.
Red Wing fans, and even their coach, have spent the last several days talking about how their team is not the team it has been in the past. I respectfully disagree. What Coach Babcock didn't seem to recognize is that this team/franchise has been built very methodically and patiently with a single goal in mind...to be able to beat the Red Wings. The Detroit team on the ice would have likely beat most of the other teams out there, in my opinion. Their late goal against Chicago in the season-ending game sealed their fate, matching them against the one team that was built specifically to compete with them, and against the one fan base that has carried a respectful, hateful passion for this opportunity for 13 seasons, and against the coaching staff that knew the most about their team.
The measuring stick from Day One has been the motivation for this franchise to become the team it is today. I am willing to bet that no coaching staff has spent as much time in the last 13 seasons studying film of the Red Wings. Trotz knows the Red Wing line-up and tendancies nearly as well as Babcock, and probably more so in some cases. The Predators have learned from Red Wing successes over the years, but they learned significantly from Red Wing failures. They learned what it took to beat the best team in the league, and they put the pieces into place, one at a time, patiently...
To beat Detroit you have to have stellar goal-tending. You have to play team defense and you have to shut down or at least contain their top scorers. You may have to play their top play-maker in a basketball-style box and one defense during key periods of the game to limit their space (a la Suter v. Datsyuk). You have to use speed and energy with an aggressive fore-check to force mistakes, but you have to be smart enough and patient enough not to over-extend. You have to capitalize on some of the mistakes you force. When you do make a mistake, your teammates have to be ready to bail you out. You have to keep your foot on the gas. You need to score by committee since Detroit can focus their defensive efforts on an opponent's top two lines with great success. You have to be able to win at home and on the road. You have to be confident in your own ability, but you have to respect your opponent's ability. You need leaders in the locker room, on the bench, and on the ice that have been there and done that. You need youth, energy, passion, and skill and balanced with experience, patience, and perseverance...along with a little bit of luck at the right time.
So what is so exciting about the win last night? Once you can beat a team like Detroit in a seven-game series...well, you have what it takes to beat anyone. The last two teams to beat Detroit in the first round went to the Cup Finals. Detroit only lost in the first round one other time since 1994, to the Kings in 2001. Between 2002 and 2009, Detroit won two Cups; in the other years, the team that beat Detroit either won the Cup or was runner-up.
The fact that the team was ready to move onto the business of the second round is very reassuring and is indicative of their maturity...they will have time later this summer to let the meaning of this Detroit series win sink in... In the meantime, for the fans, especially those of us who have been here since the inaugural season, this is what we have waited for, and we will celebrate. We are confident in our chances to advance further, but nothing is certain. A few lucky bounces and controversial officiating can change a game and a series, regardless of the teams involved. We liked it, we loved it, but we want more. The men in the locker room want more also.