NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In the immediate aftermath of the franchise's first-ever playoff series victory, Nashville coach Barry Trotz and general manager David Poile talked about what an important step it was for the 13-year-old organization.
"You wait a long time for something like that," Poile said minutes after congratulating players in the locker room following the 4-2 win against Anaheim on Sunday that gave Nashville a 4-2 series victory. "It's such a big thing organizationally. As a manager, you're building everything, putting everything together for scouts that drafted all these guys. For our coaches who put in unbelievable hours to get this. For our fans who are the best in the League. Everyone says that, it's a cliché, but are there any fans who are louder than these?
"This is unbelievable. And then to our players who got it done. It's a good first step, as Barry would say."
In the nontraditional market of Nashville, the Predators have slowly gained momentum in building inroads in the community. This year Bridgestone Arena was sold out for 17 regular-season games and then three more in the playoffs – a fact alluded to in the game presentation prior to Game 6 in a quote placed on the scoreboard by analyst Pierre McGuire to fire up the crowd.
In some ways it seems as if the local community had held its collective breath, waiting for the Predators' first big playoff success to latch onto to the bandwagon unconditionally. On Monday, Nashville sports radio station 104.5-FM The Zone's morning show, which includes former NFL player Frank Wycheck as a host, fielded plenty of calls about the excitement of Sunday's match.
One caller raved about the atmosphere, saying he brought his five children for the first time this season. At that point, the hosts cynically asked why it took the caller 87 games before finally attending one.
In some ways, the Predators knew that their reputation suffered from past failures, notably two defeats against San Jose in which the Preds entered as the higher seed but lost back-to-back in 2005-06 and 2006-07. In particular, the '06-'07 team, featuring Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg, raised expectations especially high but fell short.
That's why Trotz said afterwards that he was both happy and relieved.
"A lot of times, for me personally, it was frustrating," Trotz said of the five previous losses. "I think in the past, we've had some opponents that we didn't quite frankly match up really well but we gave them a really hard run. But we didn't have that difference-maker, we didn't have that belief yet. In a couple times, I know in those San Jose series, they were physically just stronger than us. And what I liked about this series is this was probably the closest to those San Jose teams. They were big and nasty and they got lots of depth and they had that in their DNA and they had some difference-makers up front and we didn't back off.
"And I knew what ever happened in this series win or lose, we were better prepared to go forward than ever before. And in the past when we had San Jose, I think we were light, we were small. We didn't have a lot of the thing intangibles you need to take a run at things."
As Trotz said, those Nashville teams were small and light built upon high-scoring forwards like Kariya, Sullivan and J-P Dumont. This Nashville team is built from the back going forward with Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne in goal and bruising Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber on defense.
Before the game, Trotz talked about the value of experience – of becoming resilient from defeat and drawing on the positives of victories. This season seemed to combine a measure of both. Last year's loss in the first-round to eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago was bitter and Nashville did not want to repeat it. They could have brought a 3-2 series lead back to Nashville for Game 6, but instead blew a one-goal lead in the final minute of regulation, allowing a shorthanded goal and lost in overtime.
"We wanted to get to the next level and if we never got there, I think that there would be a little bit of a carryover," Trotz said. "But that's why a little bit relieved. Because I think this franchise and the fans need it and I think our players needed it and the young group that has to answer all the questions because there weren’t that many players who have been involved in all the series. So I was relieved in the fact we don't have to sit back and, for lack of a better word, be (angry) all summer.
"Now, we're making history and we're a young franchise that's trying to go deep and our ownership -- we don't even get in the playoffs without the commitment to get Mike Fisher in this deal (from Ottawa in which Nashville added $4.5 million in salary per season), into the city and on this team. A lot of people say we have to do it a different way and we do. It's not about salary caps or anything, it's about winning for us … getting the players here to win and you can see what a great environment. Guys love to play here. The city's a fantastic city and we got a great fan base. Those are the things that we're trying to build."