NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators may have been the last team in the Western Conference this postseason. Now they’re the NHL’s first team to reach a conference final.
And the Predators believe they’re only halfway through.
“The expectation is the Stanley Cup,” Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said. “I think we took a big step (Sunday) and obviously for this organization and this city, but that’s not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to win a Stanley Cup. We worked really hard to put ourselves in a good position. There’s still a lot of hockey left to be played.”
The eighth-seeded team in the West, the Predators followed up a stunning sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks by ousting the St. Louis Blues in six games with a 3-1 victory Sunday. This is their first trip to the conference finals after falling short in the second round in their first three attempts, including a year ago to San Jose after pushing the Sharks to seven games.
“Right now, it means everything,” Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne said. “We haven’t gotten further than this before. Obviously, it’s a great feeling. There’s a lot of work left. After this second round, there are only four teams left. We all know that we have what it takes and everything is in our hands. It’s a good feeling. This is why you play this game. Right now, I’m pretty happy.”
The Predators, who began play in 1998, now are the NHL’s only undefeated team at home this postseason with a nine-game winning streak dating to last season. Grammy winners Lady Antebellum sang the national anthem, the latest country stars to handle the honor.
“It’s obviously a tough building,” Blues goalie Jake Allen said. “So whoever they play next is going to have their hands full.”
The Predators also are a league-best 8-2 with Rinne posting a 1.37 goals against average and .951 save percentage. He helped Nashville give up only one goal per game on home ice to St. Louis in this series. Rinne even posted his third assist of the postseason on Calle Jarnkrok’s empty netter with a minute left that clinched their series against St. Louis.
“Pekks was unbelievable again,” defenseman Roman Josi said. “Probably every game, he was our best player and he was our best player again.”
Paul Stastny gave St. Louis a 1-0 lead scoring just 2:04 into Sunday’s game. They wouldn’t score again as Rinne finished with 23 saves.
The teams wound up tied at 1-1 after 40 minutes thanks to Josi scoring 35 seconds into the second period . That was the ninth goal by a Nashville defenseman this postseason, a franchise record. Predators defensemen have either scored or assisted on 16 of their last 18 goals.
Ryan Johansen, who had an assist on Josi’s goal, scored the game-winner on a 2-on-1 after skating up the slot and beating Allen with a backhander off a pass from Viktor Arvidsson at 3:15 of the third. Only Allen kept the Predators from padding that lead with save after save, including a big stop on a breakaway by Filip Forsberg.
Johansen’s goal was a big score from Nashville’s top line, which had been held to just three points in the series with St. Louis. Forsberg got the play started, and it was just Johansen’s second goal this postseason.
“Joey’s our No. 1 center, he’s our most important guy and every time he’s going, the team’s playing well,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said.
After Johansen’s goal, a sold-out crowd took every chance to stand up and stayed there for the final minutes to celebrate franchise history.
“You take a look into the crowd, everyone’s on their feet for the entire game, and the atmosphere that the fans bring for us is unbelievable,” defenseman Ryan Ellis said . “Standing ovations at every whistle almost. It was an exciting game, an exciting series, and now we’re on to the next one.”
That will be either Anaheim or Edmonton, but the Predators will get some rest before the conference finals because the Ducks and Oilers will play a deciding seventh game Wednesday night.
“I feel like right now, we can do some damage,” Rinne said.