Ryan Jones can only listen as his teammates talk about their playoff experiences.
Not only has the Nashville Predators’ rookie forward never been in the NHL’s postseason, he’s never been in the playoff chase at the sport’s highest level. A year ago at this time he was playing college hockey, which has a season about half the length of the NHL’s.
Thus, every day is something different for him right now.
“It’s a ton of fun to be a part of this,” Jones said. “Guys are excited and they’ve gotten to experience what it’s like to be a part of being in the playoffs. Just listening to the older guys talk about what it’s like, it sounds like it’s a good time and a huge accomplishment.”
Jones is not alone in the Predators’ locker room either.
For nearly one-quarter of the team’s current roster, an NHL playoff chase is something new. That means they’re playing in games with more at stake and with more intensity than they probably ever have experienced.
“The physicality gets greater and greater as the season goes on and teams start fighting for playoff spots,” Jones said. “ … They are getting more intense and they’re just going to increase from here on out, I’m sure.”
According to coach Barry Trotz, the trick for these players is to concentrate on the game but not to be consumed by it.
“Really, the next (13) games are all about hockey – it’s all about hockey,” Trotz said. “You want to get away from the game on your days off in terms of getting your rest and doing the right things, but you have to make sure your mind, your body and your spirit is strong through this time.
“… Everything you do has to have a little bit of purpose.”
A rundown of the current members of the Predators who are in their first NHL playoff chase and what type of experience they do have:
Ryan Jones, forward: As a college player at Miami (Ohio) he never played more than 42 games in a season. He added eight more on to the end of his 2007-08 campaign when he turned pro immediately after his college career ended and played four regular-season and four playoff contests with Houston (AHL). He is now in uncharted territory with 40 NHL games and 25 AHL contests behind him this season.
Kevin Klein, defenseman: Was with Nashville virtually all of last season but appeared in just 13 contests – only two after Jan. 12. He played at least 70 games in back-to-back seasons at Milwaukee beginning with 2005-06. This season, he has missed just one game since Dec. 6, and he has played nearly three times as many NHL games in 2008-09 (50) than in his previous three professional seasons combined (18).
Antti Pihlstrom, forward: He played two years in Finland’s top tier, where he averaged 55 regular season contests. He moved to North America last season and appeared in 78 regular season and six playoff games for Milwaukee. He was a proven scorer in both of those leagues but has just seven points (two goals, five assists) in 46 games for Nashville this season.
Pekka Rinne, goaltender: Was lightly used in Finland’s professional ranks between 2002 and 2005 but stepped up his workload considerably when he came to North America. Last season he appeared in 71 contests (65 in the regular season, six in the playoffs). With just 36 games under his belt this season, he should feel relatively fresh.
Joel Ward, forward: He played 11 NHL games for Minnesota early in the 2006-07 season. Other than that, he has been a workhorse in the AHL capped by a career-high 79 games (plus four more in the playoffs) last season. At 28 years old, he is more mature – physically and emotionally – which should make the current challenge less daunting for him than for some others.