For the first time in franchise history, the Nashville Predators have advanced to the Western Conference Final, defeating the St. Louis Blues, 3-1, in Game Six to win the series by a 4-2 count.
Two goals in the third period – including the game-winner from Ryan Johansen, then an empty-netter from Calle Jarnkrok – punched Nashville’s ticket to uncharted territory, a journey that will continue later this week.
“It’s a big step for us – not only for us as players, but also as an organization,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said. “It’s something that we haven’t done before. To see that third goal – that empty-netter – that’s a great relief. It was a really tight game, and [the Blues] played hard. All series, I thought each game was really hard and tight – a lot of one goal games. To see Jarny put that in – that was a great feeling, and obviously a big relief.”
It was St. Louis who scored first for the second consecutive game when Paul Stastny pushed a puck over the goal line just over two minutes into the contest to give the Blues a 1-0 lead after one.
Nashville had quite a response, however, as Mattias Ekholm found Josi at the side of the Blues’ net just 35 seconds into the middle frame to even the score at 1-1. It was Josi’s fourth goal of the postseason, tying him with Ryan Ellis for the team lead in goals, and giving the Predators nine tallies from their blueliners, a franchise record in a single postseason.
From there, Nashville’s first line cashed in when it mattered most as Viktor Arvidsson found Johansen streaking to the net at 3:15 of the third period, and the centerman deked around Jake Allen to deposit the puck over the line and send the Bridgestone Arena crowd into a frenzy.
“There’s a lot of confidence from the team and from the coaches in that line to be able to execute like that and to be able to win a big game for us,” Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette said.
The fans remained standing for the remainder of the period, and with the Blues goaltender pulled in one last fit of desperation, Jarnkrok got Nashville’s third of the game with exactly one minute remaining in regulation.
And then, the Predators and the Blues met for a handshake at center ice.
For someone like Rinne, the longest-tenured member of the club, this moment is something he’s dreamed of for a long time. And although there’s still a ways to go until the ultimate goal can be realized, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying this for the night.
“It means everything right now,” Rinne said. “Obviously, we haven’t gone further than this before – it’s a great feeling. But there’s also a lot of work left. After this round, there’s only four teams left, and 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 – I’m happy.”
With a win in Game Six over St. Louis in Round Two, the Predators have advanced to the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history, a monumental step for the hockey club, the city and their fans.
“It’s a really positive thing – certainly for our franchise, our fans and the city of Nashville,” Laviolette said. “You can see the excitement not only in the building, but outside of the building, and I think that that only helps promote hockey and helps promote the growth of what we’re trying to do here in Nashville. It was an unbelievable experience tonight in the building and really all year. Our fans deserve so much credit for how the atmosphere is here. It doesn’t have to be that way yet it is. Our players, coaches and organization really appreciate that.”
In the third period, the 17,240 in attendance at Bridgestone Arena combined to create decibel levels not often heard indoors. And once the Preds took a 2-1 lead, that was all the team needed to carry them home.
“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.”
So when the final horn sounded and the scoreboard read 3-1 in favor of the Predators, one could argue – and there may not be much of one anymore – that the franchise had just accomplished their most important win in its history. But it’s not over yet.
“The expectation is the Stanley Cup,” defenseman P.K. Subban said. “I think we took a big step today for us and obviously for this organization and this city, but it’s not our goal. Our ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and we’ve worked really hard to put ourselves in a good position and there’s a lot of hockey left to be played. It’s a good accomplishment for this organization.”
A Preds defenseman has now contributed either by scoring or assisting on 16 of the last 18 goals and 20 of 27 in the playoffs, with 27 points overall from the backend.
Pekka Rinne recorded an assist on Calle Jarnkrok’s goal, his third helper of the playoffs.
With their series victory, the Predators will now face either the Anaheim Ducks or the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference Final. A full schedule will be announced later this week.