When the Predators drafted the goaltender nearly 13 years ago, they hadn’t completely outgrown their expansion phase. The team had just experienced its first postseason a few months earlier, a fledgling franchise that was just happy to be there.
The next several years saw the Predators become a regular playoff participant, but they still were seen as the small-market darlings — good enough to make it, not great enough to succeed.
That’s over. Nashville’s 3-1 series-clinching victory against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday is a transformative moment in franchise history. No longer are the Predators the little team that could.
“Right now, it means everything,” Rinne said. “We haven’t gone further than this before. … There’s a lot of work left, but after this second round, there’s only four teams left. We all know that we have what it takes, and everything is in our hands.
“This is why you play this game.”
The Predators will meet either the Anaheim Ducks or Edmonton Oilers in the next round, which will begin later this week. The winner of that second-round series, which the Ducks led heading into Sunday’s Game 6, will have home-ice advantage against the Predators.
“All we do is win, no matter what,” rap artist T-Pain boasts through the Bridgestone Arena speakers whenever the Predators wrap up a win, and for nine consecutive home playoff games, that is true.
Be it blowout, comeback or nail-biting thriller, the Predators have consistently triumphed through various means.
When a Blues goal at the two-minute mark of Sunday’s first period threatened that invulnerability, the Predators’ likeliest heroes emerged.
Defensemen Mattias Ekholm and Roman Josi connected for a tying cross-ice goal in the second period, the league-leading and team-record ninth from a Predators defenseman this postseason.
Nashville’s top line, silent through the first five games of the series with three combined points, loudly returned to game-altering form. Center Ryan Johansen, without a point in four consecutive games, settled forward Viktor Arvidsson’s chip-shot pass and flung the game-winner past Blues goaltender Jake Allen at 3:15 of the third period.
“It’s exactly what we’re going to keep doing,” Johansen said. “We’ve got 20-plus great hockey players in here that are just going to keep pushing and try to play the best hockey they can.”
The Predators are only halfway to their objective. In between the smiles and hearty back slaps, players were quick to point out that fact. But let’s be real — this is special.
“The expectation is a Stanley Cup,” Predators defenseman P.K. Subban said. “I think we took a big step today for this organization and this city, but that’s not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup.
“We’ve worked really hard to put ourselves in a good position. There’s still a lot of hockey left to be played, but we should enjoy this today. It’s a hell of an accomplishment for this organization.”