Last night the Nashville Predators became the NHL’s Western Conference Champions. You could say that sentence a dozen times and it just wouldn’t get old. Nor would it get old in knowing the path that the Predators went through to get to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance but also the manner in which they did it. The Predators defeated the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, and Anaheim Ducks. And there really wasn’t a time in this run when the team was absolutely running at 100% strength. They’ve been winning through depth and competing as a team.
The saying “The Road to Nashville Goes Through Milwaukee” is one that has been put up all over the Milwaukee Admirals locker room for quite awhile. It’s also made mention several times by either Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile or the coaching staffs at both the NHL and AHL level. What is happening right now for the Predators is a direct result of that statement. It’s truth. All you need to do is look at some of the names contributing right now and you will find countless Admirals who either participated this season or in the past.
Colton Sissons was the star man last night and for good reason. Sissons became the fifth player in the past 40 years to score a hat trick in a series-clinching victory to reach the Stanley Cup Finals: Mike Bossy (1983), Jari Kurri (1985), Wayne Gretzky (1993), and Patrick Kane (2013). It wasn’t just the goal scoring for Sissons that was impressive as it was him excelling in the moment, as effectively the Predators top line center on the evening, in all areas of the game: face-offs, defense, special teams, blocking shots, keeping an active stick, and being skillful when in attack.
What last night was for Sissons was the best game that he has played to this point in his professional career. Yet, it isn’t something that should come as a surprise. From the moment that Sissons left the Kelowna Rockets and joined the Milwaukee Admirals to begin his pro career all that you could ever tell out of him was that he was mature beyond his years. He conducted himself the right way upon arrival and became an AHL All-Star and an NHL name in his debut 2013-14 season. It felt like that was a sign of bigger things to come. But, at 20-years old at the time, there was still plenty to learn. Which is what the next step really was.
The sophomore season for Sissons did not feature NHL hockey. It didn’t even feature playoff hockey in the AHL for him, either. Sissons’ 2014-15 season was one that saw him start to evolve his game, refine and polish defensive aspects, and implement more physical play. Those areas all circulate around his finest attribute: leadership. At the start of every season the Admirals locker room votes for their captains. Sissons, still 20-years old at the start of that sophomore season, was named an alternate captain alongside Mark Van Guilder and team captain Joe Piskula. Despite making a push in camp the following season Sissons would begin Year Three with the Admirals in the AHL. At 21-years old he was voted by his teammates to be team captain. And he would continue working, pushing, and preparing himself for the next stage. Sissons’ 2015-16 season would see a return to the NHL scene and it would really be his last true stint of AHL hockey. Sissons belonged up. Sissons was good enough to be testing himself at the NHL level and improving with the Predators on a daily basis. Last night was the finest example of that countless work paying off.
Another great impact player for the Predators on this run to the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Finals has been Austin Watson. Which is funny if you think about it. Watson is the man who started his 2016-17 season off being placed on waivers by the Predators, not getting claimed by any other NHL organizations, and being assigned to start the year off with the Admirals back in the AHL.
Watson’s journey to get where he is right now is actually remarkable in the most untraditional of ways for someone who was selected as highly as he was in an NHL Draft. Watson was taken eighteenth overall by the Predators in the 2010 NHL Draft. He was taken exactly one pick ahead of Nick Bjugstad and then several others who have become rather good names in the NHL: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Charlie Coyle, Brock Nelson, and Tyler Toffoli. Yet, entering his fifth pro season, Watson was being put on waivers by the Predators -no one claimed him- and he became an Admiral once again in a league where he was a 20 goal scorer for three consecutive seasons. He arrived, conducted himself like a pro, was setting himself up to play alongside Vladislav Kamenev and Harry Zolnierczyk, and managed to suit up for 3 games before going right back where he belongs.
I’ve asked Watson himself, and Milwaukee Admirals head coach Dean Evason, just where did this physical element to his game come from and haven’t really had an answer. Me, I believe the answer is an obvious one. Watson had the start to this season that he did while he sees Cody Bass make the Predators roster at his expense. Watson has since dropped the gloves 14 times. He only had 3 fights prior to this season.
Perhaps lost in all the fighting, but even more so all that bone-crunching hitting, has been Watson’s advancements in his skating ability this season. Often in the past that has been his biggest issue: speed. There was a season in which Watson was centering the likes of Miikka Salomäki and Joonas Rask in which he told me outright that those guys were way too fast for him. That’s kind of a problem. And that’s why he was shifted out from center to wing where he could free roam a little bit easier to work damage in more ways than one. He displayed all of what he has been so well known for and some of the things he is becoming even more well known for last night for the Predators against the Ducks. It’s the scoring touch that is still yet to be shown on a more regular basis that he did display in the AHL with the Admirals. The more comfortable he gets the more that can really come together.
Even at 25-years of age, after seasons upon seasons in Milwaukee where he could have just about felt forgotten about in the prospect pipeline, Watson is right there for the Predators and he is still showing that he is capable of doing even greater things. Who scored the empty netters last night to seal the deal for the Predators? The forward they risked losing on waivers to begin the season. Who knows what sort of a fire that lit underneath him and just how much that fire is powering the Predators to success right now.
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