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West contenders shouldn't sleep on the Predators

by David Kalan /
In Barry Trotz's impressive tenure in Nashville, despite relatively little national attention and the financial constraints of a non-traditional market, he has not just kept the Predators competitive, but he's also led them to the postseason five of the past six seasons. With that fact, however, comes the unfortunate truth that Nashville has never reached the second round.

That could be changing this season.

While the Preds have had their close calls, and were less than a minute away from putting the eventual-champion Blackhawks on the brink last spring, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this may be the year the Predators don't just get out of the first round, but could potentially emerge from a very crowded Western Conference. The idea of the Cup being challeneged for in Music City is probably odd to most hockey fans to be sure, but make no mistake, Nashville's roster is one that has been built by GM David Poile to compete in the postseason.

The evidence of this lies on the back end where Shea Weber and Ryan Suter head a strong defense, but a solid goaltender who gets hot at the right time might be the most valuable asset in a postseason run. The last few Cup winners didn't necessarily have experienced men in net, but Antti Niemi, Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Cam Ward were all goalies that flourished when spring hit. While Predators netminder Pekka Rinne doesn't have the experience of playing deep into the postseason, he certainly has the capability of carrying a team, as evidenced by his .929 save percentage and 2.10 goals-against average, each of which ranks second in the League.

Offensively the Preds have produced lately, too, averaging 3.67 goals per game in winning eight of their last nine. With things going well at both ends of the ice, this is a team that is playing like a contender as the season winds down. Nashville will be tested Tuesday night against the Canucks, but the Preds have won six in a row against opponents that are all in the playoff hunt, with the exception of Edmonton. Of course, it helps when you play at home and Tuesday will be the Preds' ninth game in their last 10 at Bridgestone Arena, but Nashville, with a 19-17-3 road record, is no slouch away from home. The Predators do get a break in that 12 of their last 15 games this season are in Tennessee, but getting into a groove over the last 15 games is almost a prerequisite for a champion now. The last four Stanley Cup winners have all played exceedingly well down the stretch. Chicago won six of its last seven a year ago, while Pittsburgh, Detroit and Anaheim each went 10-2-3, 11-3-1 and 9-3-3 respectively over the final 15 games of their Stanley Cup seasons.

In addition, Nashville appears more than ready to challenge the West's top teams. Against the likely top three seeds in the West -- Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose -- Nashville is 8-2-2, with games still to go against the Canucks Tuesday and the Red Wings Saturday night.

This is not to say that Nashville has necessarily proved itself to be a member of the West's elite just yet, but the NHL postseason is littered with lower-seeded teams making deep runs in the past decade. Look no further than last year's Philadelphia Flyers, who were the No. 7 seed in the East before making a dream run to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. Anything is possible in Spring if you're using the right ingredients.

The rest of the West would be wise to take note of what Trotz is cooking.
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