NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – The Nashville Predators, the final team into the NHL playoffs, are headed to the first Stanley Cup Final in franchise history.
Coach Peter Laviolette insists they won’t just be happy to be there either.
“Our guys know the big picture,” Laviolette said. “They understand what it is that we’re trying to do here. And when that time comes, we’ll be ready.”
Colton Sissons scored a hat trick with his third goal the game-winner with 6:00 left, and goalie Pekka Rinne made 38 saves as the Predators beat the Anaheim Ducks 6-3 on Monday night in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.
Now the team no one outside of Nashville expected to be here is waiting to face either defending champion Pittsburgh or Ottawa for the Stanley Cup. Game 1 is Monday.
No matter what happens next, the Predators already have turned in a thrilling run this postseason as just the third franchise seeded last in its conference to reach the Final since the NHL went to the current conference-based playoff format in 1994. The Edmonton Oilers lost to Laviolette’s Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, while the Kings beat New Jersey in six in 2012.
They also are the eighth team in the past 15 seasons to reach the Stanley Cup Final after finishing the regular season outside the top 10 in the final standings.
Nashville’s magical run started by sweeping the West’s No. 1 seed in Chicago. The Predators downed St. Louis in six to reach their first conference finals, and now they’ve knocked off the Pacific Division champ in Anaheim, which lost for the second time in three years in the Western finals.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne, the Predators’ longest tenured-player at 34, called the victory an amazing feeling.
“It’s a funny thing though,” Rinne said. “Everything that is happening around us, you still feel hungry and now we have a chance to play for the Cup. It’s a pretty amazing feeling and you’re working for that for a long, long time. I feel like the last number of years, we’ve been going in that direction, building this team and having more depth.”
That depth has paid off, particularly the last two games after losing top center Ryan Johansen after Game 4 to emergency surgery on his left thigh. Captain Mike Fisher, the only player on the roster who has played in the Stanley Cup Final with Ottawa in 2007, also missed those two games with an upper-body injury.
Forward Kevin Fiala broke his left leg in the second round.
Laviolette simply tapped Nashville’s pipeline and has tied the NHL’s all-time mark using 18 forwards this postseason. Sissons is the latest to respond. The 23-year-old center was scoreless in the 2016 playoffs and had 10 points in 58 games during the regular season. Now he has 10 points this postseason.
“I don’t think I even dreamt of this moment, scoring a hat trick in the Western Conference clinching game, but I can’t speak enough for just our whole group,” Sissons said. “We’ve been through some challenges together and we stuck together no matter what, just always believed and here we are.”
Now Laviolette is the first coach since 1994 and the fourth overall to take three different teams to the Stanley Cup Final , joining Scotty Bowman, Dick Irvin and Mike Keenan.
“Probably means that I got fired a lot,” Laviolette said with a chuckle. “I’m fortunate to be here working and fortunate (general manager) David Poile gave me a job. And when you do that, you’re not thinking about things like that, you’re just thinking about coming to work.”
Now Music City stands ready to show the NHL how to chase hockey’s ultimate trophy in star-studded fashion.
The Predators have had a different national anthem singer for each playoff game ranging from Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan to Trisha Yearwood. The singer’s identity is a well-guarded secret. NFL stars like Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, PGA golfer Brandt Snedeker and former Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George have revved up crowds for a raucous party each game.
Fans filled the plaza outside the arena and the park across the street during the game before pouring onto the street lined with honky-tonks to celebrate. Forward James Neal said the Predators’ fans are special and now everyone in the hockey world is getting to see them.
“It’s hard to describe and it’s an amazing feeling to win this, and we’re not done,” Neal said.
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