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On any other team, Matt Halischuk's dash to the slot last Saturday night in Vancouver would have seemed terribly out of place. What was a 22-year-old rookie with five career goals in 48 NHL games even doing on the ice in double overtime of a second-round playoff game against the prohibitive Stanley Cup favorite? "Just trying to fit in," the Predators forward said minutes after his snap shot beat Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo to give Nashville a 2--1 win that evened their Western Conference semifinal series at 1--1. Playing for a club built on spit, gumption and spare parts that all seem to fit, Halischuk was simply, in his own words, "taking my turn. Everybody gets to be a hero on this team."
Behind the play, Shea Weber, the Predators' mountainous defenseman who had bumped and crunched through 42 belligerent minutes of ice time, punched his fist into the air and leaped toward his teammates. "I didn't think I could jump that high," Weber said.
The same could be said for Nashville, the team that has made the greatest leap forward in this most remarkable of NHL postseasons—which has been teeming with overtimes (17 through Sunday) and seventh games (four in the first round) and now has a belle of the ball with a Southern drawl. In just a few weeks the Predators, who began the playoffs as a small-market afterthought, have become the NHL's small wonder. Their victory over Vancouver was the latest triumph in what has been a breakthrough spring. Mired in 11th place in the Western Conference on March 10, Nashville finished 11-3-1 to clinch a playoff berth in the final week of the regular season, then advanced past the round 1 for the first time in the club's 12-year history, beating the favored Ducks in six games. "We don't have any stars here," says defenseman Ryan Suter, Weber's partner on the blue line. "If people don't respect us because they don't know us, we can surprise them."
On Saturday it was Suter who—with the Predators about to suffer a second straight 1--0 defeat to Vancouver—produced the biggest surprise of the game. Pinching into the offensive zone in the final 75 seconds of regulation, he slid a seemingly harmless shot from behind the left corner of the net toward Luongo. The oft-maligned Vezina Trophy finalist had been unbeatable all night, stopping 35 shots. But Luongo has a maddening penchant for committing costly mistakes late in games, and the puck slid under his right leg pad, banked off his left skate and trickled into the goal. "I just wanted to get it on net and get a whistle in their zone," said Suter. "Honestly, I was just playing for the face-off. Nothing else."
That Nashville was in a position to force overtime was directly due to its sparkling defense, specifically goalie Pekka Rinne. At 6'5", 207 pounds—perhaps with his equipment on—the 28-year-old has the upper carriage of a hockey stick and the reach of a blue line, but he relies on the post-to-post quickness of a much smaller goalie. In the first overtime Rinne made the save of the playoffs. With Vancouver forward Daniel Sedin carrying the puck down the right side, Rinne moved to his left in anticipation of a shot. But after Sedin fed a cross-ice pass to Kevin Bieksa in the low left slot, Rinne left his skates and lunged to his right to get his blocker on what seemed a gimme conversion. "I was diving in my mind before I was diving on the ice," he said afterward. His 32-save night was the goaltending performance of the playoffs. The Predators take pride in being a team without stars, but it seems they may have to make allowances for their goaltender.
The backbeat in Music City emanates from the blue line, where the tandem of Weber and Suter is emerging as the best defensive pairing in the game. Against Anaheim they held the league's hottest line—Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan—to a combined seven goals in six games. "They are total complements to one another because they are total opposites," says Predators coach Barry Trotz. "And both will win the Norris Trophy before they're done." With Weber, 25, and Suter, 26, setting the tone, Nashville's emphasis is on defense first. The Predators' 190 goals allowed this season were third fewest in the NHL, behind Vancouver's 185 and the Bruins' 189.
The 6'4", 234-pound Weber is made for menace, with or without the puck. Playing for Canada at the Olympics last year, he ripped a slap shot through the netting for a goal against Germany, and he later rattled Alex Ovechkin with a check that left the Russian star tentative for the rest of the game. "If I came in one-on-one against Shea," says Suter, who played for the U.S. in Vancouver, "I'd probably just chip it into the corner. You know he's going to hit you. You know you're going to remember it." Weber has accentuated his intimidating game with what Predators G.M. David Poile calls "the best playoff beard in the league." But Weber, who finished tied for fourth among defensemen with 16 goals this season, has been noticeably bothered in the playoffs by a sore right hand. In Game 1 against the Canucks, he fired one shot over a yawning net after sneaking in from the point and catching Luongo off-guard.
Weber's brawny game makes him a perfect foil for Suter, the son of 1980 Miracle on Ice defenseman Bob Suter. A brainy puck mover, Ryan rarely makes mistakes and separates opposing forwards from the puck with subtle nudges rather than devastating hits. "He's as fluid in transitioning from defense to offense as anybody in the league," says Poile. "He has a lot of [Detroit's Nicklas] Lidstrom in him. If Shea has the loud game, Ryan has the quiet game." When Suter missed games because of leg and upper-body injuries this season, Nashville was 4-7-1 and Weber was -10.
As much of a name as Rinne, Suter and Weber have made, the Predator forwards are virtually anonymous. "You can't really tell them apart," says Vancouver's Henrik Sedin, who as the identical twin of one of his linemates appears an unlikely person to be confused by mirror images. Nashville's forwards each fit the same basic player profile: good discipline, average skill and an unremarkable north-south game. "It makes it hard to get matchups, in a way," says the Canucks' Keith Ballard, "because it's not like [we can get] our best [against] their best."
By midseason the Predators desperately needed another center. Nashville lost a whopping 173 manpower games to injury at the position—Matthew Lombardi, the team's prized off-season free-agent signing, hasn't played since suffering a concussion in the second game of the season. On Feb. 10, Poile dealt the team's first-round pick in this year's draft to the Senators for veteran Mike Fisher, an indefatigable two-way center who was already spending ample time in Nashville to be with his wife, country star Carrie Underwood. (After the trade, a blog of The Tennessean proclaimed: CARRIE UNDERWOOD'S HUSBAND ACQUIRED BY NASHVILLE PREDATORS.) Fisher is a throwback on and off the ice. He drives a Ford F-150, only discovered Twitter two weeks ago and is known to drop printable f bombs on the ice such as freakin', friggin' and frickin'. He writes the numbers of Bible verses on his sticks before covering them with tape. He hails from Peterborough, Ont., but has always been a Southern gentleman. When he left Ottawa he took out a full-page ad in the paper to thank the fans. (Now why don't more friggin' guys do that?) Though acquired partly for his gritty, grinding intangibles, Fisher led Nashville with six points, including three goals in the defeat of Anaheim. "It's [for] the long haul," he says of life with his family in Nashville. "This is home."