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Forget expansion label for Predators, try NHL's best @NHL

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -Take a look at the NHL standings. The team at the top hasn't been perennial President's Trophy winner Detroit, or even the defending Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes.

No, it's the Nashville Predators.

The expansion franchise best known for trying to survive in a Southern market, and which has never won a playoff series, all of a sudden is focusing on a run for the Stanley Cup.

The Predators headed into the weekend leading the NHL with 79 points following a 4-2 win Thursday night over Toronto. That's one point more than Buffalo, and three more than Central Division rival Detroit.

Six of their next seven games are at home, where they have won eight straight and are 20-3-3. And these Predators know it's where they finish that matters most.

"Nobody ever remembers three quarters of a way to the end of the season," general manager David Poile said.

"It's driven by your record and what you do in the playoffs. We know we're good enough we're going to be making the playoffs and realistically for the first time in our franchise, we have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. Now we have to continue that process and see what happens."

The Predators debuted in 1998 with a five-year plan to be competitive, and never wavered. They didn't reach the playoffs until year six, but have been in the postseason the last two seasons and were a No. 4 seed in 2006. They still have the same owner in Craig Leipold, the same general manager (Poile) and coach in Barry Trotz.

Frugal in the early years, they built through the draft, picked up cheap talent through trades and relied on speed and hard work to survive.

They wound up building around goaltender Tomas Vokoun, their lone player left from the 1998 expansion draft. Key defenseman Marek Zidlicky came when they traded away their first goalie, Mike Dunham. Nine current Predators were the club's draft picks, with more stashed away at their AHL affiliate in Milwaukee.

Trotz owns the record for most games coached with an expansion franchise, even though he wondered if he'd survive the first season. He said the key was staying with the plan.

"The coaching staff, the management team, the ownership, we had to build this team a certain way through the draft. We had to be patient. We had to sign the right guys when we had an opportunity to. We sort of went down that path," he said.

The biggest key to the Predators' current success is the NHL's new labor agreement, a deal with revenue sharing giving competitive hope to small-market teams. Leipold helped negotiate that deal, and wasted little time spending money after the lockout ended.

He shocked much of Canada by signing Paul Kariya to a two-year, $9 million deal. After San Jose pushed them around with Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton in a 4-1 playoff series loss last April, the Predators addressed that weakness by signing center Jason Arnott to a five-year deal and adding J.P. Dumont after Buffalo let him go.

"The new CBA has been a Godsend for us in terms of allowing us to be competitive," Poile said. "Honestly, the signing of free agents really wasn't on our radar."

Trotz has adapted to the talent surge. He has four strong lines with 12 players already with 20 points apiece, and two goalies in Vokoun and Chris Mason already with a franchise-record nine shutouts this season.

They play very fast and love to shoot at the net. Their 38 wins through Thursday led the NHL, and their 18 road wins already had matched a franchise record with 11 games remaining.

"It's nice not to be the underdog anymore, but the favorite," said forward Scott Hartnell, a 2000 draft pick with 427 career games with the Predators. "We're relishing that."

Now if the Predators could fare as well in the stands as they do on the ice.

Leipold announced last month that up to 40 percent of his team is up for sale to a local owner, hoping that would boost corporate support for a team that ranks 23rd in attendance averaging 14,620 per game this season. That is up from last season, when Nashville averaged 14,428.

But business sales have dropped by more than half from 1998 to about 1,800 per game, and the Predators run the risk of not being able to collect all the revenue-sharing money available if paid attendance doesn't improve. The team also could leave town if paid attendance dips below 14,000 this season and next.

For now, the Predators are concentrating on the task at hand - trying to win the Central Division for the first time, win their first playoff series and push for the Stanley Cup with the most talented team they've ever had.

"You don't want to pass up opportunities like that, and you never know if you're going to get another one, being on a team like that," Vokoun said.

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