Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, left, and Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne (35), of Finland, shake hands after the Canucks' 2-1 win in Game 6 of a second-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey series on Monday, May 9, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. Vancouver won the series. (AP Photo/Mike Strasinger)
Nashville coach Barry Trotz doesn't want his Predators to forget the pain of losing in the playoffs. Just consider it the necessary pains of growing up in the NHL.
The Predators used an agonizing loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champs in the first round a year ago as motivation throughout this season, and they rode that to the franchise's first opening series victory. Nashville's run finally came to an end Monday night with a 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks in six games in their first Western Conference semifinals.
Trotz said he told his players they will grow from the battle of playing in a semifinal series where only one game was won by more than one goal.
"We made a couple steps forward. Everything that people said we couldn't do, we did this year," Trotz said.
The franchise that was counted out of the playoffs last pre-season finished fifth in the West to reach the post-season for the sixth time in seven seasons. Nashville joined only Detroit, San Jose and Calgary in winning at least 40 games for a sixth straight season. Only Detroit (158) and San Jose (156) have won more home games than the Predators (155) over the past six seasons.
"Not a lot of people give us credit at the start of the year," captain Shea Weber said. "A lot of people don't think we're going to make the playoffs, let alone get into the second round. We're still not satisfied. The group here wants to win the Stanley Cup, so it's not easy to be going home this early. But I think we grew, and there's a lot of firsts that happened this year."
The biggest was winning their first elimination game after losing the previous five. That 4-3 win Saturday night in Vancouver extended this series one more game, even though the Predators ran out of offence against Vancouver.
Nashville just ran into the NHL's best team during the regular season in the Canucks, a team that was both the league's top scoring offence and featured the stingiest defence.
"It was real close," Trotz said. "If you get a break here or there or if you get another secondary hero for us we could be going to Game 7, or we could be on the positive side."
Nashville also survived injuries to Matthew Lombardi, the forward acquired last off-season to replace Jason Arnott. He missed almost the entire season. The Predators also lost Marcel Goc, Francis Bouillon and Cal O'Reilly to season-ending injuries, and they finished the season with the NHL's fifth-youngest active roster.
"It's been a long year for us," forward Joel Ward said. "We dealt with adversity. A lot of guys injured and on IR. As a group, we had different guys up and down making big plays at certain times."
Trotz said he couldn't ask for a better group of players who just kept finding ways to win.
"They didn't want any excuses of 'guys out' or the what-ifs. What if we'd had a full roster with the Gocs and the Lombardis and the O'Reillys and the Frankie Bouillons. It didn't matter. We'll never know that, that's for another day," Trotz said. "The guys that were there were Nashville Predators and they grew a lot."
The Predators wasted little time making sure some of their youngsters get more playing time. They sent defenceman Jonathan Blum and forwards Blake Geoffrion and Matt Halischuk to their American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee on Tuesday as that team finishes up in the playoffs.
The team's success is helping turn Music City into even more of a hockey tonk kind of town. With two new top officials on the business side, Nashville sold out more games (16) in the regular season since its second season. All six playoff games sold out as fans tailgated before faceoff.
The Predators are going to need every penny from those six playoff games as they face their biggest off-season challenges in trying to keep Weber, a restricted free agent defenceman who will be in heavy demand, and Ward, who scored seven goals in the post-season in nearly topping the 10 he had in the regular season.
Nashville postponed talking to Weber until the season ended, and keeping the player they gave the "C'' to last summer will be the top goal. Ward wants to stay in Nashville, but he could get a higher offer elsewhere. The Predators have lots of young talent in the pipeline, not counting defenceman Ryan Ellis.
This franchise seems set to collect some heavy hardware in June. Weber is a Norris Trophy candidate as a top defenceman, goalie Pekka Rinne is a Vezina Trophy finalist, Trotz is a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy for best coach and general manager David Poile also is a finalist.
Ward said it's good and hopes Nashville gets recognized.
"It's good to see them get on the map, and hopefully they can at least bring home some hardware and put us even further on," Ward said.