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Nashville Predators head coach Barry Trotz talks with players Martin Erat, left, of the Czech Republic, and Jason Arnott (19), while playing the Detroit Red Wings in the first period of an NHL hockey game in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Nov. 22, 2007. Erat had one goal and two assists and Arnott had one goal as the Predators won 3-2.

Mark Humphrey

In May last year, just after the Nashville Predators lost a heart-breaking first-round playoff series to the Chicago Blackhawks, floodwaters damaged the team's home Bridgestone Arena so badly that it left it out of service. Power, phone and computers were all shut down, as up to a foot of water pooled in some places, damaging the floor, the carpeting and walls of the rink level.

Had the Predators defeated Chicago in the opening round - and they had them down 2-1 in the series and on the ropes in the fourth game - they would have had no place to play the second round, according to coach Barry Trotz.

"I'll be honest," said Trotz, prior to the opening of their first-round series against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night. "To me, this is the toughest year we've had. Everything's been tough. It started with the flood last year. All preseason, we didn't have a dressing room. On opening night, we were putting the doors on our dressing room.

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"Game 1, Pekka [Rinne]gets hurt. Game 2, [Matt]Lombardi is out. It was like, every game, somebody out. We were laughing the other day because David [Poile, the general manager]came into my office and said, 'Is that the lineup?' And I go, 'Yeah, that's it,' and he says, 'That's the first time in 25 games we've had the same lineup for two games in a row."

And yet, the Predators are in the playoffs again this season, the little team that could, despite the sort of overwhelming odds that would lay waste to other, less-resilient franchises.

Defence wins at every level in every sport, and the Preds had that this season, beginning in goal with Rinne, who put up Vézina Trophy-type numbers, amply aided by the stalwart duo of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter on the blueline. But at centre? Lombardi, who was signed to replace Jason Arnott, had a season-ending concussion in the second game. Defensive specialist Marcel Goc played as the No. 1 centre at times this season, but he was injured twice and is out indefinitely. Same with Cal O'Reilly, who was the 13th forward on the depth chart early but also did a turn as the No. 1. Things got so bad at one point that one of their depth minor-leaguers, Chris Mueller, who was on an American League contract, was signed to an NHL deal because they had no other options.

Trotz, as is his habit, always seeks out the silver lining.

"Sometimes you have a guy pigeon-holed as more of a defensive centre and all of a sudden, he's got to play with offensive guys and they have pretty good production, and then you look at the guy a little differently," Trotz said.

"At the same time, you're thinking, ok, we're playing [Ryan]Getzlaf. … Who's going to play against him? For periods of time, guys can really go in and do a pretty good job. It's the length of time they have to do it that is the big thing. Guys have to mature a lot quicker because of it."

Of the four teams that joined the NHL in the last round of expansion, the Predators have been the most successful. Trotz is a candidate for coach-of-the-year honours again. He jumped to 455 NHL career victories this season, moving him into the top 20 in league history. He is the one-and-only coach in franchise history. In a Western Conference in which 10 teams accumulated 94 points or more, the Predators made the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, despite their annual rotating cast of leading scorers and starting goaltenders.

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In five previous tries, however, they have yet to get out of the first round.

If the Predators can break through this year, Trotz figures it will have "a major effect going forward - just from the standpoint of, okay, we've done it, we've taken it to the next level."

Seems like a long time ago that BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie was angling to bring the Preds to Southern Ontario.

"I think the organization's grown and become a part of the city of Nashville," Trotz continued. "People love this team. They love what we do. I think we've solidified ourselves. We've done a great job in marketing. We've actually packed them in pretty good this year. So I think we're here long-term, staying, and all that. We're Nashville's team."

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