Preds officially entered in playoff race

Updated: February 26, 2004, 11:27 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

Think it's easy to make the playoffs in the National Hockey League?

After all, there are 16 spots available, and, what the heck, not everybody can be good every year, right?

Well in this day and age there are a lot of good teams in the NHL. They're not all great, and only a handful are true Stanley Cup contenders, but good teams abound and, sometimes, good teams don't make the playoffs.

The Nashville Predators this season are one of those teams. They're good -- just ask the Detroit Red Wings who trail the season series 3-2 with one game left -- but that doesn't mean they'll grab one of the eight playoff berths available in the West for the first time in the franchise's six-year history.

Still, they're making a run at it.

For the first time since the team's inception, general manager David Poile made a move designed for one reason: to win more games right now. He swapped a part of the team's future -- second-round draft picks in consecutive years (2004 and 2005) -- for Steve Sullivan, a scoring winger who makes $3 million a year but who can help the club right now.

In addition, Poile reportedly is shopping for at least one more defenseman, preferably a veteran who can steady the team in its own end.

Still, the addition of Sullivan alone was no small move for a franchise that hoards draft picks the way the New York Rangers throw around money. Even before the Preds got the Chicago Blackhawks' leading scorer, the team was on pace for a record year in goals scored. But given that every win, tie and overtime loss is proving to be the difference between being as high as fifth or as low as ninth in the conference, Poile felt more offense was needed to improve his team's chances. In Nashville, that's called going for it.

"Certainly it's a statement and one we haven't made to our fans in past years," said Poile. "In the past perhaps some of our deals were perceived as something we did for the future and not the right now, and I don't disagree with that. We also saw a little of an aftershock there with people saying we were committed more toward the future than this season.

"Certainly that's not the case this time. Steve Sullivan is a big commitment and he's not just a rental. He's not unrestricted, he's more along the lines of an asset. You hope it works out in terms of re-signing him, you hope he likes it here and we like what he does for us, but this is more than just someone coming through. He's an asset. He may take us to arbitration if we qualify him, but the goal here is to make him a part of this team and re-sign him."

Poile has reason to be optimistic. His team has 31 wins so far, four shy of the most in franchise history. It has already set a franchise record for wins at home (20) and there are still 19 games left in the season.

Long viewed as offensively challenged (the franchise best in a season is 199 goals), the Predators scored seven goals in Sullivan's debut Feb. 18 against the San Jose Sharks, including a team-record five power-play tallies and a hat trick by their newest player. They produced a franchise-record eight against the Phoenix Coyotes three nights later and are now on pace to score 210 goals. They've already set a team record with 12 short-handed goals, surpassing the previous mark of 9, and likely will shatter the team record for power-play goals in a season (58, they are at 53), as well.

In addition, the Predators have a 16-7 record in one-goal games and are 24-20-6-1 against the rest of the Western Conference. They've beaten the teams they need to beat: besting division rival Columbus four out of five times, as well as conference rivals Anaheim (3-0-1) and Phoenix (3-0-1). They've also beaten the teams they weren't expected to beat: Aside from Detriot, they've had success against St. Louis (2-2-0) and Colorado (2-1-0).

It's not surprising that the Predators haven't gotten national attention for their achievements. In a 30-team league it takes more than a little while for a team to make a statement and longer still to have it recognized, especially when the organization is perceived as dull and defensive-minded, and is without a single player whose performance resounds with league-wide magnitude.

Although dedicated to the concept of team defense, the Preds are not and for the most part never have been a trapping team. Instead, they are strong on the attack, forecheck relentlessly and generate a good deal of their offense, especially on the power play, by sending their defensemen up into the play. Two of their defensemen -- Marek Zidlicky (39 points) and Kimmo Timonen (35 points) -- have been among the top 10 in the league in points at the position.

Their forwards aren't explosive offensively -- Sullivan became the team's leading scorer the moment he arrived -- and they lack overall size. But they have their fair share of playmakers -- Scott Walker, David Legwand and Martin Erat rank in the top 20 in assists -- and seven players have registered double-digits in goals.

Tomas Vokoun has provided above-average goaltending since he took over the No. 1 role in December 2002 and earned his first All-Star Game invitation this season. His 3.20 GAA and .884 save percentage since the break has caused some concern, but Chris Mason has proven to be a good backup during Vokoun's swoons.

Nashville has weathered over 200 man-games lost to injury and has committed the types of mistakes that go along with one of the youngest lineups in the league. But the mindset of "no excuses" allows for, well, no excuses.

"We've put a lot of emphasis on that this season and some of it comes from our disappointments in the past," said head coach Barry Trotz, the only head coach the Predators have ever had. "We've gone through some tough times together and we've become a better team. There are a lot of new faces on the team, especially on defense. But for the guys who have been here awhile, it's been a learning process and I think we've grown into a team in that regard.

"When bad things happen to us, we have some experience in regards how to handle that and we deal with it."

Despite the successes, there is still a chance the Predators won't make the playoffs. Lots of teams try hard and some, quite simply, are better. Others might prove to have just a little more veteran savvy, an important ingredient when it comes to handling the pressure of a playoff race. The schedule (nine home, 11 away) doesn't exactly play to their advantage either.

But this edition of the Predators won't stop trying.

"We were at a point early in the season where we went into Detroit, and we hadn't had much success against that team. We were trailing by three and we came back to win it 4-3. In a sense, I think that's where this team and this season were born," Poile said. "Since that time we've played much better as a team, we've been much closer and the belief went way up. I like to attribute that to both the players and the coaches. I think we became a team and if you look back, maybe that's where it all came together for us."

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

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