Underdog Predators finally get to take center stage in Game 7 against Anaheim

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Friday, May 13, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- One game with the whole hockey world watching.

Consider how rare an opportunity that is for the Nashville Predators, a team that hardly ever gets a chance to showcase itself on national TV.

If they do, it's because they're the team fans ofother teams see when they're watching highlights or reading a box score. So often, the afterthought franchise.

The pesky Predators have forced their way into the national spotlight, with a chance to knock off a team many picked to win the Stanley Cup. Come Wednesday night, they will face the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 of their first-round series at 10 p.m. ET in Anaheim, the last game of the NHL's opening round.

I floated this scenario to longtime Predators netminder Pekka Rinne, and his eyes lit up.

"Absolutely, it's a big game for our whole franchise,'' Rinne said Tuesday before his team boarded its charter flight to Southern California. "At the same time, it's a big game for individuals too -- just to get the exposure. People have to watch us now.

"We have such a talented group of players and deserve a lot of exposure, too. It's always the case [when you're] playing for a smaller-market team. There's a lot of advantages, too. You get to fly under the radar a little bit. And you don't feel the pressure from outside that much."

Predators coach Peter Laviolette led the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup championship in 2006. It was a nontraditional, smaller-market team forcing its way into the national scene by virtue of its playoff run.

Now Nashville has the opportunity to follow a similar path.

"You can always draw comparisons," Laviolette said Tuesday when asked about parallels with that Carolina team. "I'd probably be better-equipped to answer that after the game. We'll know our fate at that point. No matter how far you get, there's always situations where you have to create your story. [Monday] night was just a piece of it. [Wednesday] would be a piece of it and then you move on, and for sure there would be a lot of pieces right after that.''

The Predators are feeding off the underdog role. They believe the favored Ducks face all the pressure. Nashville, in outward appearance at least, looks like a loosey-goosey bunch.

"We've been underdogs all year, and I don't think people saw us in this position," first-line winger James Neal said Tuesday. "Every guy in our dressing room knows that. We just have to have that belief we can do it.''

Neal also knows what the Ducks are feeling.

"There comes a pressure when you're playing at home in a Game 7," he said. "You want to win that game for your fans. So we'll get into our hotel room tonight, get some sleep, rest up and have a focus to win the game [Wednesday].''

As soon as Game 6 -- a 3-1 Predators victory -- ended, the Ducks were faced with a narrative they wanted badly to avoid. They've been up 3-2 in a playoff series the past three years, but lost to theDetroit Red Wings (2013), Los Angeles Kings (2014) and Chicago Blackhawks(2015). It's worth pointing out that the last two were to the eventual Cup champion. Butstill, it's a storyline that won't go away unless Anaheim wins Wednesday night.

Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, however, isn't planning any big speech for his teammates. The task before his team is obvious.

"Nothing really needs to be said. We've got to go out and do it," said Getzlaf. "There's no big speech or anything when it comes to Game 7. Everybody knows what they're doing. We have to go out and execute better than the other group. ...

"It's Game 7,'' Getzlaf added. "I'm not going to go out and give some big motivational speech. I've just got to go out and do what I have to do and play hard. And guys know that.''

The West has seen a changing of the guard this spring. Chicago and Los Angeles, winners of five Stanley Cups in the past six years, were ousted in the opening round.

For the Ducks, it's a chance to take over the Western crown.

As teams like theSt. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharkshave broken through, the Predators no doubthave wondered why they can'tbe part of the seachange in the power structure of the West.

"Everyone's picked them to win," Neal said of the favored Ducks. "We know what kind of team we have in Nashville. We did everything all year to push ourselves to this point. You know, why not win one more game?''

Related Video