Hockey world, these are the Preds
CHICAGO -- Hello, world we are the Nashville Predators. How do you like us now?
Matched up with the flash-and-dash Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the NHL playoffs, the Nashville No-Names were given so little chance that one swore it was the Washington Generals taking the ice Friday night and not an NHL club that garnered 100 points in the Western Conference this season.
"We're not the pretty choice," veteran Preds forward Steve Sullivan said after a statement 4-1 win in Game 1 at United Center. "We're not the favorite choice, we're not the exciting brand of hockey that the Chicago Blackhawks are, but we've got a quiet little swagger within this dressing room."
Now more than ever after the franchise's first road playoff win in 11 tries.
Hours earlier on Friday morning, Predators coach Barry Trotz was asked about his team and its seemingly lifetime underdog status.
"We do what we do" was his response, as understated as his organization has always been.
What they do is not TV-friendly, but boy is it effective. You want to talk road game to open a playoff series? Tape Friday's game and send it to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"Patience was key," Nashville blueliner Kevin Klein said.
The Predators have no interest in making this series a track meet. What they want is what they got Friday night, a low-scoring, defensive affair in which they limit their mistakes, fill the gaps in the neutral zone, and wait for the Blackhawks to get frustrated and start turning over the puck.
The winning goal, J.P. Dumont's second of the night, was a product of just that. Hawks winger Troy Brouwer tried to do too much at his own blue line and turned over the puck. Moments later, Dumont banged in a rebound for a 2-1 lead at 10:37 that would stand.
"The second one was a tough one to give up. We turned it over at a critical spot," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who didn't hide his disappointment with Brouwer's decision. "It kind of represents the way Nashville plays. No matter who the opponent is, that's what you're going to see and that's what you get. They play a hard game, they play simple and they can frustrate you. I think we got a little bit out of our game after they got the lead. The second one was a tough one."
Was it pretty? Not really. But style points don't get you wins in the playoffs.
"We have to play that way, we have no choice," Dumont said. "We just try not to beat ourselves. We try not to turn the puck over, and I thought we did a pretty good job with that tonight."
Playoff hockey is a different beast. It's uncanny how difficult a lesson that seems to be for offensively gifted teams. Chicago and Washington are arguably the two most talented offensive teams in the NHL, and both opened with upset losses at home. On Friday night, too many Hawks players tried to do too much with the puck instead of just chipping it in and chasing it down. They forced the play, and that's exactly what Nashville wanted.
"We were looking for better plays tonight that probably aren't going to be there," Quenneville said. "Against them, patience and simplicity are probably key words that will go a long way if we want to have success."
But there's a fine line. The Hawks have to make better decisions with the puck without betraying their identity. They're not a dump-and-chase team; they're the high-flying Blackhawks. But they have to be smarter.
"I think that's one of our strengths as a team, recognizing that you don't always have to make [fancy] plays to be successful," Quenneville said. "But I still think tonight, when we were getting inside the offensive blue line, we were looking to make a better play instead of going straight ahead and forcing plays to the net."
For 40 minutes, the Hawks were in decent shape, up 1-0 and not really threatened too much by the Preds. But 1:31 into the third period, a fluky goal by Dumont dramatically changed the feel of the game. Somehow, Hawks goalie Antti Niemi let Dumont's floating backhand from the sideboards get past him.
"It gave us some belief right there. It energizes you," Trotz said.
And that's the interesting thing about Niemi's night. He really wasn't bad otherwise. The Hawks would take two goals against in a playoff game any time. But the first goal was so brutal it changed the game. The goalie story isn't going away any time soon in Chicago.
Friday's result also falls in line with what has transpired around the NHL early in these playoffs -- the bottom two seeds in each conference opened with road wins.
"I just think that's parity," Trotz said. "There's a lot of good teams in this league, and there's a lot of good teams that didn't make the playoffs that would have been extremely dangerous. I think that's what the NHL wanted to develop with the salary cap, and you're seeing that. It's just the evolution of the league. It's a hard league, and it's tough to get into the playoffs."
For the Preds, however, Friday's win in front of a bigger-than-usual TV audience is about respect. They've got a good thing going in Nashville, and it's sad so few people recognize it (Scott Burnside wrote a tremendous piece on the Preds earlier this month).
"This group doesn't have any egos," Trotz said. "They've committed to the identity and what we do. Yes, it was an example tonight [of what they're about]. They're a good group. They stay together. It has a lot to do with our core and a lot to do with the foundation that we've developed over 10 years in our history. We'll find a way if we need to."
That no one picked them to win this series? Par for the course.
"We've been dealing with that for years," Sullivan said. "We feed off it, sure. I mean, we've been in the playoffs five of the last six years. I don't think people picked us to be in the top eight to make the playoffs, and we're here. We're not chosen by anyone to come out of the first round.
"But it's a long series. It's one game. They're going to bring their best hockey, the kind of hockey that made them the best team in the West. We have to enjoy this for 30 minutes and refocus."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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