David Kehrli, TSN Correspondent
RALEIGH, N.C. — As Monday’s Game 1 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final approaches between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators, I can’t help but be reminded of the 2006 Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes — the state of North Carolina’s first and only major-league championship team.
The similarities between today’s Predators and that magical Canes squad from 11 years ago go well beyond being led by head coach Peter Laviolette — the fourth coach ever to lead three different teams (Carolina, Philadelphia, Nashville) to the Stanley Cup Final.
They’ve arrived (and are for real) moment
While the 2006 Canes finished second in the Eastern Conference, fans and national media alike weren’t sure how good of a team they were, especially after losing their first two playoff games at home to the Montreal Canadiens with the series heading back to hockey-obsessed Montreal.
What followed was the Canes winning four straight (three on the road) against the Canadiens to advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, proving to the hockey world they were a legit threat and the regular-season record was no fluke.
Nashville, the 16th of 16 teams to make the 2017 NHL playoffs, drew the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks, who had won three Stanley Cups in the previous seven years, in the first round.
Almost no one gave the Predators a chance against such a potent offensive team, but Nashville shocked the world by sweeping the Blackhawks, and allowing just three total goals in the four games.
There’s no better way to announce to the world you’re the real deal than beating the top team in the Western Conference and the closest thing to a modern dynasty in the NHL.
Goaltending leads the way
Rookie netminder Cam Ward replaced the Hurricanes No. 1 goalie Martin Gerber, who backstopped Carolina to a franchise record 112 points in the regular season, in Game 2 against Montreal with the team down 3-0.
It was Ward’s net the rest of the way as he carried the Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup Championship, posting a .920 save percentage and 2.14 goals against average en route to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoffs MVP).
Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne has put up incredible numbers up to this point of the postseason, and if he keeps it up in the Stanley Cup Finals, he has a great shot of winning the Conn Smythe Trophy, even if the Preds lose the series.
His .941 save percentage and 1.70 goals against average rank first among all playoff netminders, as he has proven to clearly be the best goalie of the current postseason.
Young forwards carry offensive workload
At just 21 years of age, Eric Staal led the Hurricanes in both regular season and postseason scoring.
After a breakout season in which he scored a career-high 100 points in the 82-game regular season, Staal carried it over to the playoffs, scoring 28 points (nine goals, 19 assists) in 25 games.
Nashville has been led offensively up until this point by a duo of young forwards.
22-year-old Filip Forsberg ranks first on the team in playoff scoring with 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) in 16 contests.
24-year-old Ryan Johansen was Nashville’s best forward in the playoffs, scoring 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in 14 games, until an injury in the Western Conference Finals ended his postseason.
Southern “non-hockey market”
“Hockey doesn’t belong in the South; this is Canada’s game.”
Don’t tell that to the people of the Carolinas and Tennessee.
Yes, the Hurricanes attendance problems have been well documented recently, but don’t forget what RBC Center (currently PNC Arena) was like when Carolina put a good team on the ice.
In 2006 the Hurricanes blew up the notion that hockey couldn’t be popular in the South by packing RBC Center to full capacity while being loud and rowdy.
Players and media in Raleigh during that playoff run credited RBC Center as being one of, if not the loudest building in the NHL at the time.
Fast forward to 11 years later and much of the same is being said about Nashville and Bridgestone Arena.
Preds defenseman P.K. Subban, who spent his entire career in the hockey mecca of Montreal up until this season, recently told reporters after a game:
“I played in an A+ market my whole career. There’s not a city in the League that has anything on Nashville.”
Key offseason additions
Coming out the NHL lockout of 2004-05, people expected the game to evolve, and general managers scrambled to put together rosters suitable to play a changing style of hockey.
The Hurricanes general manager at the time, Jim Rutherford (currently Pittsburgh’s GM) made several crucial signings before the 2005-06 season.
Forward Cory Stillman was signed to a three-year deal and instantly became a key part of the Canes offense.
Stillman finished the regular season tied for second on the team in points with 76 in 72 games played.
He continued that pace in the playoffs, scoring 26 points (nine goals, 17 assists) in 25 games, finishing only behind Staal in playoff points for the Canes.
Rutherford also signed defenseman Frantisek Kaberle, who provided some offensive punch from the blueline.
Kaberle easily led the Carolina defensemen in points with 44 in 77 regular season games.
In the playoffs, Kaberle put up 13 points, and more importantly scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers.
Nashville general manager David Poile made one of the biggest trades the NHL has seen recently following the 2015-16 season, sending Shea Weber to Montreal in exchange for Subban.
Subban, a more exciting, talented and productive version of Kaberle, has undoubtedly been a superstar in Nashville.
He helped stabilize the Nashville defense while adding a needed offensive threat, evidenced by his 40 points in 66 regular season games.
In the playoffs, Subban has pitched in with 10 points, while leading the Preds defense in ice time with 25:52 a game.
Finishing the job
With one final series to play, Laviolette and the Predators have one final step to take.
If they do so successfully, they will bring the Stanley Cup to a deserving fan base in the South.
Hurricanes fans who experienced it all in 2006 can relate.