COUNTRY STRONG

May 08, 2011

No history? No stars? No problem for the largely anonymous Predators, whose grinding, defense-first style has given the playoffs a whole new backbeat

On any other team, Matt Halischuk's dash to the slot last Saturday night in Vancouver would have seemed terribly out of place. What was a 22-year-old rookie with five career goals in 48 NHL games even doing on the ice in double overtime of a second-round playoff game against the prohibitive Stanley Cup favorite? "Just trying to fit in," the Predators forward said minutes after his snap shot beat Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo to give Nashville a 2--1 win that evened their Western Conference semifinal series at 1--1. Playing for a club built on spit, gumption and spare parts that all seem to fit, Halischuk was simply, in his own words, "taking my turn. Everybody gets to be a hero on this team."

Behind the play, Shea Weber, the Predators' mountainous defenseman who had bumped and crunched through 42 belligerent minutes of ice time, punched his fist into the air and leaped toward his teammates. "I didn't think I could jump that high," Weber said.

The same could be said for Nashville, the team that has made the greatest leap forward in this most remarkable of NHL postseasons—which has been teeming with overtimes (17 through Sunday) and seventh games (four in the first round) and now has a belle of the ball with a Southern drawl. In just a few weeks the Predators, who began the playoffs as a small-market afterthought, have become the NHL's small wonder. Their victory over Vancouver was the latest triumph in what has been a breakthrough spring. Mired in 11th place in the Western Conference on March 10, Nashville finished 11-3-1 to clinch a playoff berth in the final week of the regular season, then advanced past the round 1 for the first time in the club's 12-year history, beating the favored Ducks in six games. "We don't have any stars here," says defenseman Ryan Suter, Weber's partner on the blue line. "If people don't respect us because they don't know us, we can surprise them."

On Saturday it was Suter who—with the Predators about to suffer a second straight 1--0 defeat to Vancouver—produced the biggest surprise of the game. Pinching into the offensive zone in the final 75 seconds of regulation, he slid a seemingly harmless shot from behind the left corner of the net toward Luongo. The oft-maligned Vezina Trophy finalist had been unbeatable all night, stopping 35 shots. But Luongo has a maddening penchant for committing costly mistakes late in games, and the puck slid under his right leg pad, banked off his left skate and trickled into the goal. "I just wanted to get it on net and get a whistle in their zone," said Suter. "Honestly, I was just playing for the face-off. Nothing else."

That Nashville was in a position to force overtime was directly due to its sparkling defense, specifically goalie Pekka Rinne. At 6'5", 207 pounds—perhaps with his equipment on—the 28-year-old has the upper carriage of a hockey stick and the reach of a blue line, but he relies on the post-to-post quickness of a much smaller goalie. In the first overtime Rinne made the save of the playoffs. With Vancouver forward Daniel Sedin carrying the puck down the right side, Rinne moved to his left in anticipation of a shot. But after Sedin fed a cross-ice pass to Kevin Bieksa in the low left slot, Rinne left his skates and lunged to his right to get his blocker on what seemed a gimme conversion. "I was diving in my mind before I was diving on the ice," he said afterward. His 32-save night was the goaltending performance of the playoffs. The Predators take pride in being a team without stars, but it seems they may have to make allowances for their goaltender.

The backbeat in Music City emanates from the blue line, where the tandem of Weber and Suter is emerging as the best defensive pairing in the game. Against Anaheim they held the league's hottest line—Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan—to a combined seven goals in six games. "They are total complements to one another because they are total opposites," says Predators coach Barry Trotz. "And both will win the Norris Trophy before they're done." With Weber, 25, and Suter, 26, setting the tone, Nashville's emphasis is on defense first. The Predators' 190 goals allowed this season were third fewest in the NHL, behind Vancouver's 185 and the Bruins' 189.

The 6'4", 234-pound Weber is made for menace, with or without the puck. Playing for Canada at the Olympics last year, he ripped a slap shot through the netting for a goal against Germany, and he later rattled Alex Ovechkin with a check that left the Russian star tentative for the rest of the game. "If I came in one-on-one against Shea," says Suter, who played for the U.S. in Vancouver, "I'd probably just chip it into the corner. You know he's going to hit you. You know you're going to remember it." Weber has accentuated his intimidating game with what Predators G.M. David Poile calls "the best playoff beard in the league." But Weber, who finished tied for fourth among defensemen with 16 goals this season, has been noticeably bothered in the playoffs by a sore right hand. In Game 1 against the Canucks, he fired one shot over a yawning net after sneaking in from the point and catching Luongo off-guard.

Weber's brawny game makes him a perfect foil for Suter, the son of 1980 Miracle on Ice defenseman Bob Suter. A brainy puck mover, Ryan rarely makes mistakes and separates opposing forwards from the puck with subtle nudges rather than devastating hits. "He's as fluid in transitioning from defense to offense as anybody in the league," says Poile. "He has a lot of [Detroit's Nicklas] Lidstrom in him. If Shea has the loud game, Ryan has the quiet game." When Suter missed games because of leg and upper-body injuries this season, Nashville was 4-7-1 and Weber was -10.

As much of a name as Rinne, Suter and Weber have made, the Predator forwards are virtually anonymous. "You can't really tell them apart," says Vancouver's Henrik Sedin, who as the identical twin of one of his linemates appears an unlikely person to be confused by mirror images. Nashville's forwards each fit the same basic player profile: good discipline, average skill and an unremarkable north-south game. "It makes it hard to get matchups, in a way," says the Canucks' Keith Ballard, "because it's not like [we can get] our best [against] their best."

By midseason the Predators desperately needed another center. Nashville lost a whopping 173 manpower games to injury at the position—Matthew Lombardi, the team's prized off-season free-agent signing, hasn't played since suffering a concussion in the second game of the season. On Feb. 10, Poile dealt the team's first-round pick in this year's draft to the Senators for veteran Mike Fisher, an indefatigable two-way center who was already spending ample time in Nashville to be with his wife, country star Carrie Underwood. (After the trade, a blog of The Tennessean proclaimed: CARRIE UNDERWOOD'S HUSBAND ACQUIRED BY NASHVILLE PREDATORS.) Fisher is a throwback on and off the ice. He drives a Ford F-150, only discovered Twitter two weeks ago and is known to drop printable f bombs on the ice such as freakin', friggin' and frickin'. He writes the numbers of Bible verses on his sticks before covering them with tape. He hails from Peterborough, Ont., but has always been a Southern gentleman. When he left Ottawa he took out a full-page ad in the paper to thank the fans. (Now why don't more friggin' guys do that?) Though acquired partly for his gritty, grinding intangibles, Fisher led Nashville with six points, including three goals in the defeat of Anaheim. "It's [for] the long haul," he says of life with his family in Nashville. "This is home."

The Predators' recent success has been an exercise in patience. Poile's father, Bud, had been the first G.M. for both the Flyers (in 1967) and the Canucks (in '70), so start-up ventures are in David's DNA. He passed on a post with the Maple Leafs to take the job with expansion Nashville in 1997, and he recalls a piece of advice that he was given time and time again—Find an experienced coach; your team will be terrible, but he'll cover up a lot of sins. For his fledgling club, however, Poile was more concerned about finding someone with loyalty and patience, someone who would stick. As the former G.M. of the Capitals, Poile had taken a liking to the personable Trotz when the latter graduated from plucky 5'9", 178-pound minor league defenseman to the coach of Washington's AHL affiliate. In '97, in the days before his team even had a nickname, Trotz would go to club luncheons in the Nashville area and patiently explain such fundamentals as icing and offsides to potential fans. One day, he and former assistant coach Paul Gardner were looking through an old CHL guidebook and spotted a club called the Granby Prédateurs. They quickly added Predators to the list of names to be put up for a fan vote.

Trotz was more than loyal—he inspired loyalty throughout the organization. Assistant Brent Peterson and goalie coach Mitch Korn have been with the team since Day One. After 984 games behind the Nashville bench, Trotz has spent more time coaching a single team than all but three NHL coaches in history. In the locker room, making the rounds from stall to stall, he is a steadfast presence. "Sometimes it's your game; sometimes it's a personal thing," says Suter of the chats with his coach. "You always know he's in there with you. It's never you against him."

Though the Predators have made the playoffs in six of the last seven years, their history has been a two-act play. In 2004, when they qualified for the playoffs for the first time, the Predators' payroll stood at $24 million, compared with just under $80 million for the Red Wings, their first-round opponent. Only after building from the draft did they add superstars Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg. Then, in 2007, after 106- and 110-point seasons, ownership decided to sell after slashing payroll. "We were essentially in a no-compete situation," recalls Poile, who traded or let go of Kariya, Forsberg, Tomas Vokoun, Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen. "[We could either] give up or rebuild. We rebuilt. Today's team—our personnel, our approach—is a product of that desire for success no matter what."

This season, with the league's fifth-youngest team, the Predators dressed more of their own draft picks, 19, than all but one other NHL club. Nashville relies on a foundation of steady, stay-at-home defensive play, strong puck possession and aggressive forechecking to cover up for the absence of skilled forwards. The Predators finished 2010--11 as the third-stingiest club in the league, with 2.32 goals allowed per game.

Of course, Nashville did not score much either this season, averaging just 2.60 goals per game, the fewest of any club in the second round of the playoffs. The Predators spread their scoring throughout the roster, as 19 players had game-winning goals, and forwards Sergei Kostitsyn and Martin Erat led the team with 50 points, the lowest total to lead any playoff team.

On the heels of the first-round upset of the Ducks, Nashville's young forwards were horribly flat in Game 1 against Vancouver, managing just 11 shots in the first two periods. "Too many passengers," Trotz said afterward. "They wanted it more than us." The next day he spent most of a two-hour practice in a team meeting, stressing puck control and fighting for face-offs. "It wasn't just the centers," he said. "We gave up on a lot of free pucks in the circle." In the Game 2 victory Nashville gave the puck away just three times, outshot Vancouver 46--33 and improved its face-off winning percentage from 39.4% to 57.3%. "Tonight you saw the real Predators," Trotz said. "We got everything we have out of what we've got."

That's a tribute to staying power, even for a team that seems content to keep its star power to a minimum.

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THE PREDATORS TAKE PRIDE IN BEING A TEAM WITHOUT STARS, BUT IT SEEMS THEY MAY HAVE TO MAKE SOME ALLOWANCES FOR THEIR GOALTENDER.

PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHOSOUTHERN MAN Fisher (in white), who scored three goals in round 1, fits in Nashville not just because of his solid play—he's married to country star Carrie Underwood. TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by DAVID E. KLUTHOA LITTLE SOUTH IN YO' GOALMOUTH Rinne (35, top) was spectacular in Game 2—so, too, was Luongo (1, above) until he gave up a crucial score to the pesky Preds.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)