Next man up: Character carries Preds to Cup finals

Friday, May 26, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 21
By John Glennon

Colin Wilson and Pontus Aberg congratulate Colton Sisson on his first period goal, the first step in his hat trick, during Monday night’s 6-3 Western Conference Finals-clinching win against the Anaheim Ducks. Sissons’ third period goal gave the Preds a 4-3 lead they would not relinquish.

-- © Steve Roberts/Cal Sport Media/Csm Via Zuma Wirecal Sport Media Via Ap Images

Just five games into this history-making hockey season, the Nashville Predators faced an early character test.

With their roster depleted by food poisoning, the Predators found themselves heavy underdogs against the NHL’s defending Stanley Cup champions – the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But thanks to key contributions from some unlikely heroes – and the support of the Bridgestone Arena faithful – the Predators surprised the Penguins, whipping them 5-1.

Some seven months later, the Predators find themselves in a similar situation with much, much higher stakes: The NHL’s crown jewel, the Stanley Cup, is on the line.

A Preds team that has already lost first-line center Ryan Johansen (thigh surgery) and promising forward Kevin Fiala (broken leg) for the remainder of the playoffs – and a team that’s recently been playing without captain Mike Fisher (upper-body injury) – will battle for the league championship against either the Penguins or Ottawa Senators.

Will the underdog Predators, the lowest seed to make this year’s playoffs, continue their shocking run by capturing the Cup?

It’s already been a ground-breaking year for the Preds, who captured the Western Conference championship on Monday. They’d never before advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs in 17 previous seasons of existence.

“It’s a great achievement – it’s big for the team, big for the organization and big for all the players in this dressing room,” says Predators forward Colin Wilson, who’s been with the team for eight years. “We’ve certainly faced a lot of adversity to get to this point. But now the work starts for this next series.”

The Preds’ Western Conference-clinching victory over Anaheim last Monday was not unlike many postseason victories this year for Nashville, which improved its playoff record to 12-4.

It featured big contributions from some surprising sources, and it came in front of a fanatical home crowd that’s earned a reputation as the NHL’s loudest.

Just that morning, as a matter of fact, the New York Times had featured a story on the front of its sports page about the rise of Music City’s passionate hockey fan base.

The crowd was kick-started Monday night by former Tennessee Titans running Eddie George, who revved them into action by whipping a gold towel above his head before the contest.

“Nashville has really taken on a life of its own,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette says. “I think our fans who have been so supportive for so many years … the energy they bring into the building – especially the last couple of years in the playoff runs we’ve had – goes to a level that I’m not sure goes anywhere else in the National Hockey League.”

Here’s a glimpse at what the Predators’ precedent-setting victory on Monday meant to three key figures – Laviolette, offensive star of the game Colton Sissons and Preds General Manager David Poile.

The coach: Laviolette began working wonders with the Predators in his first season, 2014-15, when he guided the team to a 16-point improvement from the previous year and steered Nashville back to the playoffs after a two-season absence.

In each successive year, the Predators have advanced further in the postseason.

After suffering a first-round loss to Chicago in his first season, Laviolette led the Predators into the second round before falling to San Jose last year.

This season, the Preds swept top-seeded Chicago and outmuscled the St. Louis Blues before outlasting Anaheim in a war of attrition.

Laviolette became just the fourth coach in NHL history to guide three teams to the Stanley Cup Finals, having done so previously in Carolina (2006) and Philadelphia (2010).

“It probably just means that I got fired a lot,” Laviolette has said of the accomplishment. “I’m fortunate to be here working and fortunate David Poile gave me a job. And when you do that, you’re not thinking about things like that, you’re just thinking about coming to work.”

The offensive star: A second-round pick of the Predators in 2012, Sissons had spent the majority of the past three seasons in the minor leagues.

He finally became a regular on the Nashville roster just this year, but was riding the bench as recently as three months ago.

Since returning to the lineup, however, Sissons has been a different player.

Given an expanded role following Johansen’s injury earlier in the Anaheim series, Sissons delivered a playoff performance for the ages in Monday night’s clincher.

His hat trick included the game-winning goal in the third period, one that prompted a deluge of hats onto the Bridgestone Arena ice.

“It was a wild ride so far this year, a lot of challenges for me personally, obviously being out of the lineup,” Sissons says.

“I just wanted to be a regular guy playing every single night, to now arguably (being) the one or two centers for us with (Johansen) and Fisher out.

“It’s been a wild ride, but it feels good and I’m just enjoying it.”

The general manager: In the months after Poile and the Washington Capitals parted ways two decades ago, Poile could have accepted an offer to become the new general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs – an Original Six hockey team that had won 13 Stanley Cups.

Instead, he chose Nashville, fascinated by the opportunity to build a franchise from scratch.

“I just felt that you only have one chance to start something from your own in terms of building a business,” Poile explains. “I’m really glad I did. I’ve never, ever regretted it.”

Poile kept the Predators competitive through lean times when it appeared unstable ownership might lead to the franchise leaving town.

In the last two years, Poile has pulled the trigger on blockbuster trades that brought two huge pieces to the Predators – Johansen and defenseman P.K. Subban.

So it seems only fitting that in his 35th year as an NHL general manager, Poile will at long last get to experience one of his own teams playing for the Stanley Cup.

“It’s taken a long time to get here,” Poile admits, “but it feels really good today.”

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