Predators were pundits’ preseason darlings

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Anytime the lowest-seeded team knocks out the top-seeded team, it’s surprising. But the Predators aren’t a typical second wild card.

They entered the season with great expectations and were almost universally considered Stanley Cup contenders. In season previews, six NHL.com experts, six Sportsnet experts, four ESPN.com experts and the Sun-Times and Tribune all had Nashville at least reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

But the Predators lost six of their first eight games and were inconsistent all season.

And their overtime woes — they lost eight times in overtime and four times in shootouts — cost them precious points.

Johnny Oduya said his play has been "not very good" so far in the series with the Predators. (AP Photo)

They found their stride at the right time, though, and have gone 13-4-1 since March 11, including the sweep of the Blackhawks. This is the team everyone expected all along.

“It was a little different this year,” defenseman Roman Josi said. “I think there were more high expectations from the outside. We always have high expectations in this room.

‘‘At the start, we weren’t happy with the way we were playing. We were inconsistent. But as the year went on, we got better and better and carried it into the playoffs.”

With a top line of young budding stars Filip Forsberg (22), Ryan Johansen (24) and Viktor Arvidsson (24), two stud defensemen in their prime in P.K. Subban (27) and Josi (26) and a highly regarded young goalie in Juuse Saros (22) ready whenever veteran Pekka Rinne relinquishes the top job, the Predators are positioned to be a Western Conference power for years to come.

“I think things started to come together at the right time,” forward Harry Zolnierczyk said. “Ultimately, we have our best game going forward.”

Tough series for Oduya

This wasn’t what the Hawks had in mind when they reacquired Johnny Oduya at the trade deadline. It’s not what Oduya had in mind, either.

“Expect more,” coach Joel Quenneville said of the veteran defenseman.

With that in mind, Quenneville played seven defensemen Thursday in Game 4 at Bridgestone Arena, with Oduya staying in the lineup but Michal Kempny drawing in.

Considering how little Jordin Tootoo had played (5:29 in Game 1 and 6:57 in Game 3) and considering how much Quenneville double-shifted Patrick Kane as the Hawks desperately sought some goals, it wasn’t too drastic a measure. But it was a sign of just how much Oduya struggled in the series.

“Not very good,” Oduya said of his play. “Obviously, there has to be more levels than what it is right now.”

Kempny had only played in four games since Oduya entered the Hawks’ lineup March 9. But the possession-driving, puck-moving 26-year-old defenseman was ready to go.

“If I would play, I would be very glad and I would do my best, put 100 percent into the game,” Kempny said before the game. “It’s not a good feeling [to watch], especially when you see your team losing.”

Rumor mill

The Sabres fired general manager Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma.

A league source said the Sabres have Hawks assistant general manager Norm MacIver — a trusted and key member of Stan Bowman’s staff since being promoted in 2012 — at the top of their list for GM.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.
Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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