A late season swoon cost the Nashville Predators dearly in 2014-15.
With the team almost completely intact in its second season under Peter Laviolette, the Predators are looking to avoid another letdown as they host the Carolina Hurricanes in the season opener Thursday night.
Nashville went 47-25-10 to finish with 104 points last season after missing the playoffs in each of the previous two. However, the Predators concluded the regular season with six straight losses (0-4-2) before being eliminated in six games by Chicago in the first round of the playoffs.
"We felt we were that close," captain Shea Weber said. "There’s a tough series against the eventual Stanley Cup champions. You need a bounce or two to go the other way. It could’ve been totally different, but it didn’t, and now we’ve got to make our own way."
The Predators had little trouble doing that at home early last season, winning 26 of their first 30 games before going 2-6-3 in their final 11.
Filip Forsberg was the team scoring leader, setting franchise rookie records with 26 goals and 63 points. He added four goals and two assists in six playoff games.
Pekka Rinne made 23 saves in a 3-2 home win over the Hurricanes on Jan. 6, giving Nashville an 8-2 record in 10 all-time matchups at Bridgestone Arena.
Rinne will again play a huge role in whatever success the Predators have in 2015-16. His franchise-record 36 shutouts rank third in the NHL over the past seven seasons, behind only the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist (38) and Jonathan Quick (37) of Los Angeles.
Rinne went 41-17-6 with a 2.18 goals-against average and four shutouts while finishing second in voting for the Vezina Trophy.
The Predators also have left wing James Neal and centers Craig Smith and Colin Wilson back after they each scored at least 20 goals last season.
"We have higher goals than losing in the first round," Forsberg said.
That would probably suffice for the Hurricanes, who went 30-41-11 in their first season under coach Bill Peters, missing the playoffs for a sixth straight time – the longest drought in the Eastern Conference. They’ve failed to qualify in eight of the last nine seasons since winning their only Stanley Cup in 2005-06.
"It seems like so long ago that that took place, but it definitely brings you back to those great memories that you had," said goaltender Cam Ward, the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner. "I would love nothing more than to get back and do that all over again, and not only do it again, do it here.
"I’d love to see us get off to a good start and push to make the playoffs and see the city rally the way they did 10 years ago."
Captain Eric Staal is the only other remaining member of that championship team and still plays a key role at both ends of the ice entering his 12th season. He had team highs of 23 goals and 54 points in 2014-15.
”I feel like I have a lot of great hockey left, a lot of good years left and I want to help this team get back to the playoffs," Staal said.
Staal and Ward, though, are entering the final season of their respective contracts so a slow start for Carolina will likely lead to trade speculation.
In the event of Ward’s departure, the Hurricanes acquired Eddie Lack in a trade with Vancouver over the summer and signed him to a two-year extension. He went 34-30-9 with a 2.43 GAA in 82 games the last two seasons with the Canucks.
Ward, who is expected to start ahead of Lack, is 0-4-0 with a 3.05 GAA in four starts at Nashville.
Carolina will almost certainly need more from Jeff Skinner if it plans to return to the playoffs. The sixth-year forward had 18 goals and 31 points last season and was a team-worst minus-24.
Skinner has five goals and as many assists in seven career games against the Predators, scoring one of his two career hat tricks at Nashville on Dec. 5, 2013.
Carolina hopes to avoid a repeat of last season when it opened 0-6-2 before notching its first win Nov. 1.