VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The Nashville Predators arrived in Vancouver on Wednesday night to find a city still letting out a giant, collective sigh of relief.
They hope to catch the Canucks still catching their breath, too.
Vancouver beat the archrival Chicago Blackhawks 2-1 in overtime in Game 7 on Tuesday night after blowing a 3-0 lead in the emotional first-round series.
After being knocked around — and out of the playoffs — by Chicago the last two seasons, it was as much an exorcism as a series for the NHL's best regular-season team.
When it was over, relieved goalie Roberto Luongo said it was bigger than winning Olympic gold in the same building 14 months earlier. Center Ryan Kesler, who lost that gold-medal game to Luongo and Canada, agreed.
So it's easy to wonder if the Canucks are in for a letdown when the second round starts Thursday night.
"That's the mistake we can make and it's up to us to decide if we want to make that mistake or not," Luongo said. "As a group, obviously, we were really excited, but at the end of the day we came into this season not to beat Chicago. We came into this season to try to make a run at a Cup."
The Predators had a celebration of their own after eliminating Anaheim in six games Sunday for their first series victory in the franchise's 12 years. But they've had three full days to recover, and defenseman Ryan Suter said it would have been difficult to get back at it just a couple days after advancing.
"Definitely," Suter said. "We had a lot of pressure because we had never been out of the first round, but I can't imagine the pressure that was on them after losing their series lead like they did."
Both teams talked Wednesday about resetting, and how they hadn't won anything yet. But getting up to play each other might not be as easy, especially for the Canucks. There is little of the built-in hatred that was present from Game 1 against Chicago.
There are still, however, plenty of interesting links between the teams.
Defenseman Shane O'Brien was traded to Nashville — after first being waived — following a rocky two seasons in Vancouver that included being briefly exiled from the team for gaining weight during the Olympics and being late to a practice. And Canucks defenseman Dan Hamhuis spent his first six NHL seasons in Nashville before signing in Vancouver as a free agent over the summer.
"Obviously, I had a long talk with Dan today about their players and he shared that information with our group also," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "Just like Shane is going to share some of the information about us. We've both got our resources and we're going to use them."
Nashville coach Barry Trotz wasn't as interested in picking O'Brien's brain, but like Anaheim, he doesn't expect it to take long for the rivalry to build.
"Just a game," Trotz said. "They are going to come out with their push and try to make their statement and we'll try to make our statement and the series will be on. It will evolve."
The series also will feature plenty of NHL award winners and nominees. Both goaltenders were nominated for the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalies last week despite uncharacteristic playoffs. Nashville's Pekka Rinne finished the first round with a .876 save percentage, while Luongo got back up to .903 after being pulled from Games 4 and 5, and benched to start Game 6.
"You look at the numbers and it wasn't his best series, but great goalies find ways to win games," Trotz said. "And every one of our wins when the game was on the line, when there was that tipping point when you could lose all the momentum, he had a huge save."
Predators defenseman Shea Weber, from Sicamous in the British Columbia interior, was nominated Monday for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman. Along with Suter, Weber will likely be charged with shutting down twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who won the last two scoring titles but combined for just 12 points and were minus-6 against Chicago.
"They're two dangerous guys," Weber said,
Nashville will have forward Martin Erat, who tied for the team scoring lead in the regular season with 50 points, back for after he missed the final two games of the first round following a high hit from former Canuck Jarkko Ruutu. Erat can expect to see a lot of Vancouver center Ryan Kesler, who was nominated as a Selke Trophy finalist as the NHL's best defensive forward for a third straight season Wednesday. Kesler was crucial in limiting Chicago captain Jonathan Toews to one goal.
"It's nice being nominated," Kesler said. "Saying that, there is only one trophy on my mind."