The collective sigh of relief heard in the air between Nashville and Chicago was the realization by the Predators that tonight’s game against the Blackhawks doesn’t matter.
The Predators took care of their own business, winning 3-2 over the St. Louis Blues Thursday night at the Sommet Center. The Edmonton Oilers sealed the No. 8 playoff berth for the Predators with a 2-1 win on the road against the Vancouver Canucks.
All eight teams are set in the Western Conference. The Predators, with 91 points, are only one point behind seventh place Calgary, a loser to the Minnesota Wild Thursday night.
This will be the fourth straight trip to the playoffs for the Predators.
When the final buzzer blew in the win over St. Louis, the Predators didn’t yet know if they had clinched a playoff berth or not.
But they knew they had captured the hearts of their fans. The sellout crowd stood for the closing minutes cheering and waving the white T-shirts they had been given for attending the game.
“If you are standing behind the bench, it is pretty impressive to look at the community and the people in the stands,” said Predators coach Barry Trotz. “It was pretty loud on the bench because I was trying to call lines and the guys couldn’t hear me.
“It was very loud, but it was great. It shows that we have a great fan base that has supported us all year.”
Predators goaltender Dan Ellis, who remained on the ice during the third television timeout while the crowd went wild, credited the fans with giving the team the extra push it needed both on Thursday and down the stretch toward the playoffs.
“That was huge,” Ellis said. “We were able to feed off of that. It gave us a lot of energy to get us through the final minutes.”
The crowd wasn’t always that loud. Center Jerred Smithson scored a short-handed goal to give the Predators a 1-0 lead. But the Blues came back strong in the second period with a pair of goals in the first 10 minutes. Right wing J.P. Dumont kept the second period from being a total loss as he scored with 2:14 left to tie the game.
The Predators scored what proved to be the game-winning goal at 4:01 of the third period. Dumont fell down behind the Blues’ goal, but managed to pass the puck to defenseman Greg de Vries, who drove the snap shot past St. Louis goaltender Hannu Toivonen.
“Usually Jason Arnott is right down in front,” Dumont said. “He was there, but when I tripped and fell I just put the puck in front of the net. Luckily for us, de Vries was there. He has a great shot to get the goal.”
Ellis was back in goal for the Predators. He was pulled in Tuesday night’s game at St. Louis after allowing three goals on the first seven shots. He saved 27 of the 29 shots he faced.
“The coaches have shown a lot of support in me,” Ellis said. “Chris Mason came up with a big game Tuesday night against St. Louis. You always want to bounce back especially at this time of the season. You want to prove you are not a liability to the team.
“I want to help this team out in any opportunity that I get. To give the guys a chance to win was awesome for me. We played the way we are supposed to play.”
The Predators close out the regular season tonight at 7:30 on the road against the Chicago Blackhawks.