Predators believe best is yet to come in Stanley Cup Playoffs

Nashville Predators defenceman P.K. Subban talks about his team reaching the Western Conference Final and how even though its a great milestone for the team, they are still looking for more.

NASHVILLE — To be frank, it didn’t seem like a question P.K. Subban needed to devote that much attention to. The premise was almost too self-evident: The Nashville Predators, who entered the playoffs as the lowest-ranked Western Conference team, are surely playing their best hockey of the year, right?

There’s nothing else to conclude when you consider the Preds are now a final-four club for the first time in franchise history. Not only that, Nashville advanced to its current spot in a league-low 10 games.

So, we’re all on the same page here?

“You know what, I kinda disagree,” said Subban, true to his don’t-go-with-the-flow nature. “I’ve heard a lot about how well our team is playing, but I still think we can be a lot better. And guess what, we’re going to have to be a lot better. I still believe we haven’t played our best shift yet. We haven’t played our best game yet. We haven’t had our best series yet. That has to be our mindset heading into the next round.”

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While it’s hard to take issue with much that’s happened on the ice with P.K. and the Predators, there is some reason to believe Nashville will be even better equipped to handle what comes next as opposed to what it has already seen. While the Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Ducks are slated to play Game 7 in southern California on Wednesday, the Predators are grounded for refuelling, taking it fairly easy in Tennessee in advance of a conference final that might start a mere 48 hours after the Ducks and Oilers sort out their business.

Having played 14 first- and second-round games last spring, Nashville knows the toll every-other-night hockey for a month straight can take. Combine the physical beating with the travel—last year Nashville was flying to the Pacific coast in Round 1 and 2 to face Anaheim and the San Jose Sharks—and even the best-conditioned athletes can be left zapped.

“I don’t think I can stress it enough,” says defenceman Mattias Ekholm, “I really felt that in Game 7 in San Jose last year the gas kinda ran out.”

Regardless of who the Preds face in the West final, they’ll have the benefit of operating from a blueprint. In the opening round, Nashville swept a speedy Chicago Blackhawks team that overlaps with the Oilers in many respects. Next, the Predators went knock-for-knock with the heftier St. Louis Blues, a squad with similarities to the sturdy Ducks. The Yellow Warriors believe they can thrive in any type of game and also have no qualms opening a third straight series on the road. In fact, while they draw a ton of energy from their frenetic fans, Ekholm says playing at home is almost a burden early in a set.

“The pressure is on right away. It really is,” he said. “When you start on the road, it’s more of a, ‘Hey we’ve got two games here, if we pull one, that’s great.’”

One player who’s helped the Preds to victories wherever they play is Ekholm’s fellow rearguard Ryan Ellis. Long appreciated by close observers of the game, the 2017 post-season has been a coming out party for the undersized Ellis, who’s tied with centre Ryan Johansen for the team lead in points with nine.

“I’ve been playing the same way for a long time,” Ellis said. “Just do my job and rely on my teammates to do theirs. Come in every game trying to contribute anyway I can, whether it’s offensively or defensively. We’re starting to see results as a team, which is nice.”

And just about everyone in the city seems to be enjoying it. The vibe inside Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena has been recognized as one of the league’s best for many years now, but the excitement has spilled out the doors and permeates the community. There’s a huge Preds banner hanging at the airport, and smaller versions have become decorations for many businesses around town. Flags can be spotted blowing off apartment patios and team gear pops up and down the sidewalk beside Broadway’s honky-tonks.

“There’s not words enough to speak about what they’ve done for us,” said Ekholm.

But there is evidence to suggest the Preds can continue saying “thank you” with wins.

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