- Scott Burnside, NHL
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- This isn't the first time the Nashville Predators have come home from a playoff road trip. Nor is it the first time that dozens of Predators faithful have turned up to welcome the team charter home.
But make no mistake, when the Predators descended their aircraft late on Mother's Day afternoon to a chorus of cheers on a balmy, sunny day, it was uncharted territory.
The Nashville Predators were not coming home to pack away their gear or talk about what might have been after another playoff series came to an early end. No, they were home to talk about what might yet be in this most unusual of springs for The Little Franchise That Could after they stunned the Canucks 4-3 in Saturday's Game 5 to pull within one game in their Western Conference semifinals series.
The victory is yet another significant accomplishment in a spring of firsts.
"I mean, like last night, it was the first time we've won a game when we were facing elimination," Predators GM David Poile told ESPN.com on Sunday with the cheers of several hundred fans providing the backdrop. "It's the first time we've won a playoff round, first time we've won an overtime game. We've got all these firsts that we seem to be knocking off. It's baby steps. You just never know what can happen. We're close. This series is so close."
There is no way this series should be coming back to Nashville for Monday's Game 6. The Vancouver Canucks should have won this round in a landslide based on their talent and regular-season prowess on both sides of the puck. And, at times in this series, especially when the Canucks won both Games 3 and 4 in Nashville last week, it looked as though that imbalance would produce a short stay for the Predators in their first foray into the second round.
But the Predators clawed their way to a 4-3 win in Vancouver on Saturday and have a chance to force the Canucks into some unhappy déjà vu with a win Monday night at home. The Canucks, of course, blew a 3-0 series lead against Chicago in the first round and were forced into overtime of Game 7 before prevailing.
"It felt like last night," Poile said. "I think a lot of people thought this series would be over, and after the first period with Vancouver ahead, you kind of thought, 'This is maybe their time.' But just like all year long, just making the playoffs, we found a way."
The Predators were down 2-1 after the first period, but Joel Ward, a scoring dynamo, chipped in two goals and added an assist to help keep Nashville's dream playoff season alive. Ward is now tied for the NHL postseason scoring lead with seven goals. In many ways, Ward is the poster boy for this team. During the regular season, he had just 10 goals, but in the playoffs, the former Canadian university player has delivered the goods with points in nine of 11 games.
"It was his style of game. It was a grinding type of game, and that's what Joel is, and he's a grinding type of player," Predators coach Barry Trotz said. "I thought he played with a lot of determination. Just like [Vancouver's Ryan] Kesler. Kesler's doing his thing, Joel's doing his thing, and they're both very determined to make a difference in this series."
Ward's production has been doubly impressive given that five of his seven goals have been delivered in the third period.
Trotz agreed that Ward, 30, doesn't get a lot of fanfare.
"If you watch him close, he gets a lot of stuff done," Trotz said. "Sometimes you can mistake activity for achievement. There's a lot of substance to his game in a lot of areas. He has a lot of production. He can play in these kinds of games. He can play in the wide-open games. There's some guys that can't."
Said Ward: "It was huge. I felt good, honestly, can't deny that. It's good to contribute. It's always nice to step up and be that guy, and every game we've had different guys step up at different times. We're just going to go out there and play. We're just excited we get another day to play and survive."
In a series in which all five games have been achingly close -- all have been decided by one goal with the exception of Game 4 in Nashville that included an empty-net goal -- the margin for error is slim. And one wonders whether the Preds will at some point run out of gas, or perhaps the happy-to-be-here mentality will be their undoing.
Not that anyone from Nashville is expecting that to happen.
"Well, we haven't done anything yet," insisted Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter, who leads all playoff performers in average ice time. "Yeah, it's big for the organization to win a round, but we want to win the Stanley Cup. There's no getting around that, so I don't know if I can say it's everything I imagined or not, but it's exciting and it's fun to play playoff hockey."
Poile was here for day one of the franchise's existence. He has been on every plane ride home at the end of a series. He's been in the building every time a playoff run has ended too soon. Is he nervous or Zen-like as the Predators try to stay alive for one more game?
"No, I'm really excited," he said. "It's like you don't want it to end, it's just so good. From the on-ice part of it to the off-ice part of it, people being here at the airport, the business part of it doing better, more people interested," Poile said. "Can we just please go all the way and do this just to see what this really does for our franchise?"
Monday night, we'll find out.
"Exactly," Poile said.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Nashville's forcing a Game 6 against top-seeded Vancouver is yet another significant accomplishment in a spring of firsts for the franchise.