What’s next? Nope.
The Nashville Predators finally get to ask ‘Who’s next?’
By the end of the opening round on the playoffs in each of their previous 12 seasons, they looked for answers about how to compete with the best teams in the NHL, why their best players routinely came up short or injured at a time when it mattered most and whether they ever could put together a roster talented enough to make a legitimate run at a Stanley Cup.
Sunday, the Predators got two goals from Nick Spaling, overcame an early deficit and defeated the Anaheim Ducks 4-2  Sunday. In so doing, they closed out their Western Conference quarterfinal series in six games — the first time in six trips to the postseason that they made it past the first round.
David Legwand’s empty-net goal with 9.2 seconds remaining put things out of reach and created such an unfamiliar situation that the sellout crowd of 17,113 at Bridgestone Arena — in its delirium — delayed the official result. A parade of towels and signs was showered on the playing surface and caused a delay of several minutes.
The end finally came with captain Shea Weber standing unchallenged with the puck behind his own net as the horn sounded.
“It’s gratifying because we haven’t been — as an organization — out of the first round,” Steve Sullivan, who put Nashville ahead for the first time, said. “That being said, it’s still Round 1. There’s still Rounds 2, 3 and 4 that you have to think about.
“… You’re thinking about the ultimate goal, and if you’re going to get there you’re going to have to do this three more times.”
Which leads into the question of who’s next.
At this point, there is no answer. Following Chicago's victory over Vancouver later on Sunday, there remained three possibilities -- Vancouver, Detroit and Los Angeles.
“We have a chance to move forward, and you never know,” Legwand, the first draft pick in franchise history, said. “We have a resilient group and we have to keep playing hard.”
Spaling’s second goal, with 4:53 gone in the third period, was the one that put Nashville ahead to stay.
With that, they overcame an early 1-0 deficit after the team that scored first had won the previous five games of the series. They broke a 2-2 tie that was forged when the Ducks scored their eighth power play goal of the series (they had at least one in every game). They also turned to their goalie, Pekka Rinne, who stopped all nine shots he faced thereafter. The Vezina Trophy finalist had allowed three or more goals in each of the four previous contests, a stretch which matched his longest of the regular season.
“You feel the pressure,” Rinne said. “They are giving everything they’ve got because it’s possibly their last game of the season. … The last four or five minutes they were pushing pretty hard, but I think we managed the end of the game really well and didn’t give them too much.”
Nashville was the only Western Conference playoff team that did not have an individual among the league’s top 50 scorers. In Anaheim, it faced an opponent with arguably the most productive line in the NHL as well as a second unit that featured a proud veteran, Teemu Selanne, whose series-high six goals, including the first of this game, proved that offensive instincts are timeless.
The Predators countered with two or three goals from seven different players. In fact, all three of their goal scorers in the clincher — Spaling, Legwand and Sullivan — finished the series with two each.
“They battled every night right to the very end but so did our group,” Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf said. “It’s those one or two plays that make all the difference. We couldn’t find a way to keep the puck out of our net. We scored enough goals to win [but] they worked hard and got their bounces.”
With his first goal, Spaling became the 12th different Nashville player to score in the series. That was two more than in any of the franchise’s previous playoff appearances.
The Predators’ 22 goals for the series were seven more than their previous high — and just about every one was necessary. The Ducks scored 20, which was two more than any previous Nashville playoff opponent.
If the series had gone any longer, the Ducks, no doubt, would be the ones asking ‘Who’s next?’ in relation to the Predators’ offense.
“We scored more goals than we ever have and we gave up more than we ever have,” coach Barry Trotz said. “It was a totally different animal that we had to slay, if you will.”
Most importantly, the result was different.
Now they no longer need to answer the question about when they will get past the opening round of the playoffs.
“We wanted to get to the next level, and if we never got there in this series I think there would be a little bit of a carry-over,” Trotz said. “That’s why [I’m] a little bit relieved because I think this franchise and the fans need it. And I think our players need it.
“… We’re making history. We’re a young franchise that is trying to go deep.”