Predators end season two games uner .500

Tuesday, April 10, 2001 at 1:00am

The Nashville Predators fell short of the Stanley Cup playoffs and narrowly missed a .500 season, but as players packed their personal items Sunday morning at Gaylord Entertainment Center the atmosphere was upbeat.

Team captain Tom Fitzgerald refused to let Saturday night's 1-0 loss at St. Louis to close out the season, put a damper on what the Predators have done.

"It was a goal for us to get to .500," Fitzgerald said. "The hockey gods seem to even things out. We won games we shouldn't have won and we lost games we shouldn't have lost.

"But we have nothing to be ashamed of that we didn't get to .500. We had a very good year. We had 80 points with such a young team. I don't think many of the so-called experts would have thought the Nashville Predators would have had 80 points this year. We proved people wrong and one of the more satisfying things is to prove skeptics wrong."

Fitzgerald wanted to savor the season rather than look ahead, but he knows that next season, barring any major changes in personnel, the Predators will still have to depend on every player. There can be few, if any lapses, which makes the team's 34-36-9-3 record even more remarkable.

"We don't have the luxury of a Keith Tkachuk (who scored the winning goal for St. Louis) or a Jaromir Jagr," Fitzgerald said. "We need 20 guys every night. When one line takes a night off that doesn't help us. That really is an obstacle.

"We need to have four lines and all of our sets of defensemen contribute and whatever goaltender is flying that night needs to stand on his head. That's what we need to win. It's a grind, but that's hockey."

Winger Scott Walker, a team most valuable player candidate with a career-high and team-high 24 goals and a career-high 54 points, knows how close the Predators came to being a Stanley Cup playoff team. He expects the strides the team made this season to be a prime motivation to drive players during offseason workouts.

"Guys are very excited," Walker said. "We're that much closer to the playoffs. We have to take a lot of pride in getting 34 wins and 80 points. And to have always improved in each of the three years is tough to do. Most teams will take a step back."

Walker thinks the Predators have lost their expansion label thanks to that success. A post-all-star break letdown ultimately cost the Predators a playoff berth, but it also provided a timely test.

"Teams probably didn't talk about us being an expansion team any more," Walker said. "They talked about us being a very serious team. If they weren't ready to play they were going to get beat. And even if they were ready to play, if we came with our `A' game, we were going to give them a good game and have a chance to win.

"We lost those games after the break when we were right there in the playoff race. I think losing those games really hurt us. Sure, we could have packed it in. But we bounced back and that is the tale of this team."

The Predators did more than win more games. They became mentally tougher according to forward Cliff Ronning.

"The NHL is a lot of games," said Ronning. "You're playing tired. You're getting in at four in the morning from road trips.

"I look back and professionally I think NHL players are mentally tough. I think our team became more mentally tough this year by going over to Japan and not feeling any effects at all from jet lag."

The Predators struggled to win games at home this year, though their 16 wins were one more than last year and their 39 points at home is a club record. But they lost 18 games at home and Ronning thinks that is something the players need to think about this summer as they try to find reasons for why they didn't win more home games.

"I don't know if it was pressure but we collapsed with some home games early on," Ronning said. "I think every player wants to do just a little bit more.

"You think what the fans are like, the excitement we have in the arena and how fortunate we are as hockey players to be in this situation. It pushes you in the summer to go out and run the hills when you might not want to do it."

One of the main reasons the Predators were able to improve their record this season was the goaltending of Mike Dunham. After being considered part of a one-two tandem with Tomas Vokoun, Dunham in his third season with the Predators, made major strides in becoming a true No. 1 goaltender with his career-high 21 victories and a team season high four shutouts. But he isn't going to rest on his achievements.

"In professional sports you are always proving yourself," Dunham said. "It's a never-ending process. I went out this year and enjoyed myself and things went pretty well."

He played in 29 of the Predators last 38 games and started 36 of the last 46. Dunham will spend the summer in Nashville working in the weight room and building on his strength and durability.

"I think I proved I can play several games in a row," Dunham said. "Other than a freak knee injury I was healthy all season.

"The numbers were nice, but I think the biggest thing is being part of the team, being accepted and having the respect of your teammates. I think that says more than your individual stats. I think we are a closer-knit team than we were three years ago. I think everybody battles for each other."

And when summer is over the war begins again.

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