Preds' biggest victory? Bonding, creating new fans

Thursday, 04.24.2008 / 11:10 AM / Features
Associated Press
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Preds\' biggest victory? Bonding, creating new fans

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -The Nashville Predators' reward for surviving a year with enough twists and turns for a soap opera came in the form of a fourth straight playoff berth.

Still, coming up short in the first round against the Detroit Red Wings left the Predators disappointed after a chaotic season in which they survived the threat of possible relocation, a botched sale, new owners and a long negotiation on their arena.

They also endured a poor start after a fire sale shed their roster of their top four players.

"After the first eight games of the season, everyone thought we would be getting the first overall draft pick," forward Scott Nichol said. "This was very much a storybook season. Too bad it had to end in the middle of the book."

They can console themselves that they are just one of seven franchises to reach the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, and their 141 wins in that stretch ranks sixth best in the NHL. Their penalty-killing unit ranked third in the NHL this season.

Yet they still haven't cracked the first round of postseason nor won any playoff games on the road, a skid that now has reached 10 games.

Nashville coach Barry Trotz wants his team to be proud of its accomplishments.

"This was sort of a special group and in a way a ragtag group, and it was easy to fall in love with them because no one really gave us a chance," he said.

This is the team that let top scorer Paul Kariya leave for St. Louis as a free agent, traded away goalie Tomas Vokoun along with captain Kimmo Timonen and forward Scott Hartnell. That left a big void in scoring and in net.

But Jason Arnott, who took over as captain, tied for the team lead with 72 points with J.P. Dumont, who agreed to a new deal that will keep him in Nashville. They finished with Dumont, Arnott, Alexander Radulov and Martin Erat each scoring at least 20 goals. They also scored 147 full-strength goals, second in the Western Conference.

Chris Mason struggled but still teamed with free agent pickup Dan Ellis to post 10 shutouts. But Ellis, who only signed a one-year deal, took over the net at the end of the season and was the only reason Nashville was able to push Detroit to six games in the playoffs.

Ellis had the fifth-longest shutout streak in the NHL since 1943-44 with 233:39 scoreless minutes between March 22 and 30 as the Predators went 5-0-1 to reach the postseason. He had 238 saves in the playoffs, including a franchise postseason record 52 in Game 5's 2-1 overtime loss.

"It went much better than I anticipated. I was just blessed with a great year. That's something you want to build on. You want to be considered a good goalie, not just a flash in the pan," Ellis said.

The new owners, stocked with plenty of local partners, finally got a new lease last week designed to help them make as much money as possible in the Sommet Center. They also made it clear they want to keep general manager David Poile around, giving him the title of president of hockey operations last December.

Trotz, the only coach this franchise has known in its first 10 years, is not under contract past this season. Some fans were unhappy with his coaching in the playoffs, but he was a big key in guiding this team into an improbable playoff berth.

The biggest key for this franchise may be that fans finally have claimed the Predators as their own. They sold out every playoff game and boosted attendance enough to qualify for their share of the NHL's revenue-sharing plan. They will have to do better next season.

But anyone curious about hockey love in Music City only had to show up for Game 5 last week. The game being played in Detroit lured 3,500 to the arena to watch on the scoreboard.

"We had a city that rallied behind us," Trotz said.

That might have been the Predators' biggest victory of the season.

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