It’s not too often that a franchise in its first year of existence rises to the top of the heap, but the Nashville Junior Predators have done just that. In only their first year, the team finished the regular season at 42-4-1 (85 points), good for first in the entire North America Tier III Hockey League (NA3HL) by 10 points. This certainly isn’t an easy feat as the league consists of 31 teams from all across the country. Going into the season, the expectations were obviously to win, but head coach Karlis Zirnis certainly didn’t expect this kind of performance.
“The expectations were there to have a good year,” said Zirnis. “Obviously record-wise, it was better than anybody anticipated. The biggest thing is that we were just playing on a week by week basis and not really the bigger picture. We just came to the rink and worked hard and the results were there.”
In the first round of the playoffs, the Junior Predators faced the Point Mallard Ducks in a series that went the full three games. The Ducks pushed Nashville to the brink, but it wasn’t enough as the Junior Predators pulled out the victory in game three on home ice.
“It was a tough first round for us,” said Zirnis. “But we got to it. It’s playoff time and we know it won’t be easy. It was a tough round that just made us stronger.”
The voice of the Junior Predators, Peyton Turnage has been the eyes high above the ice calling each home game this season. He’s seen the team continue to grow throughout the season and knows they have what it takes to win the NA3HL championship.
“This team has been close since game one,” said Turnage. “So throughout the season, it’s simply been a matter of mastering their craft. To win the cup, they just have to stay focused and play their game, which is a perfect combination of grit and skill. They can’t allow themselves to be distracted. Before game two against Point Mallard, the guys were joking around and acting like they had it in the bag. It cost them. They were more serious going into game three and it paid off.”
The second round, which begins on Friday, March 13th, will see Nashville face their divisional rival, the Texas Junior Brahmas. While Texas finished the season third in the division with a 26-15-6 record, they still have very dangerous players that could cause trouble for the Junior Predators.
“They have to strike first,” said Turnage on what Nashville’s strategy should be. “Texas has trouble coming back against them. Get the first goal and grind them down. Another key is containing their top scorer Mykyta Sheptytsky. He’s very fast and very skilled. These guys aren’t pushovers. It will be an all-out battle, just like the series against Point Mallard.”
Throughout the entire season, Coach Zirnis has been able to lean on team captain Jacob Lainesse. Lainesse is one of the few players on the team with lots of previous junior hockey experience. Recently, USA Hockey featured Lainesse and his leadership ability on the team. For Zirnis, he knows that Lainesse leads by example on and off the ice.
“It starts with just showing up at the rink with the right mindset and he brings that,” said Zirnis on Lainesse.” First and foremost, he came here with the right mindset ready to work hard. His locker room leadership skills as a veteran have been great. We have a lot of rookies that have not played junior hockey before, so he brings us the professional attitude and carries on from there and brings it to the ice.”
Not only has Nashville had tremendous leadership throughout the team, they’ve also had two goaltenders that have been counted on the entire season. Nathan Klebe and Justin Ball have played 24 and 21 games for the Junior Predators, respectively, in the regular season. In his 24 games, Klebe has a 21-3-0-0 record, 1.65 GAA and .931 save percentage. For Ball, who was recently named the NA3HL goaltender of the month for February, his 21 games have seen him come out with a 17-1-0-1 record along with a 1.44 GAA and .928 save percentage. For both goaltenders, those are stellar numbers.
“Both goalies have been solid all year long and it’s been great for our club,” said Zirnis. “We just kind of rotated them the whole year back and forth. Right now, we’ve been doing the same thing and just seeing how each is during practice. It depends on opponent, too, as to who does what. We just see what the opponent is doing and make our decisions from there. It’s a good headache to have, but I have to give props to our whole team. From defense to forwards, they’re blocking shots and boxing out to make things easier for our goalies.”
In going from an expansion franchise to a force to be reckoned with throughout the season, it’s been a wonderful experience for Zirnis, who played his college hockey just down interstate 65 at Alabama-Huntsville and also serves as an assistant coach for the Latvian National Team. Not only has he been able to coach his team to great successes, he’s having a big impact on the lives of his players.
“Working with teenagers, 18-19 year olds, it’s just been great to see them develop as human beings,” said Zirnis. “It’s not all just about hockey, it’s seeing them grow and mature and understand how things are and their overall development of life skills.”
As it goes with any sports team, especially those where players can age out, the team will be ever-changing. Finding success each year all leads down to bringing in the right people. For continued success following this season, Zirnis understands the power of recruiting the right kind of people to play for him.
“It starts with what’s already being done with recruiting, that’s one of the biggest parts of this,” said Zirnis. “You just have to go out there and look for talent and good players. You also want to find good people. We have good players, but it’s not enough to just be a good player, you have to have good people around. That’s what makes it successful.”
Since the beginning of the franchise, Nashville has had a strong back bone of people in the hockey community involved with the team. Former Nashville Predators JP Dumont is not only an owner of the team, but also the general manager and an assistant coach.
Be sure to catch all of the playoff action for the Nashville Junior Predators this weekend at A-Game Sportplex in Franklin, TN:
Game 1 – Friday, March 13th at 7:00pm CDT
Game 2 – Saturday, March 14th at 5:00pm CDT
Game 3 (if necessary) – Sunday, March 15th at 12:00pm CDT
Photos courtesy Nashville Junior Predators