The Nashville Predators are a quiet favorite in the NHL's Western Conference, not quite at the same level as the Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues or even their first-round opponent, the Detroit Red Wings. But that has more to do with their location and the perception surrounding the market as "non-traditional" and much less to do with their merit as a hockey club.
Because as a hockey club, they're quite possibly the best in the West. The Preds boast an impressive defensive corps, led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, backed up by arguably the best goalie in the Western Conference (or even the league). They've struggled up front this season in the goal-scoring department, but deadline addition Andrei Kostitsyn and formerly exiled star Alex Radulov have added some much needed punch there.
We asked Dirk Hoag of Predators blog On the Forecheck to answer a few questions about the team as they prepare for the playoffs.
1) What's the biggest reason you have confidence in the Predators heading into the postseason?
David Poile has surrounded his core players with the best complementary players he could find in guys like Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad, but the "X Factor" has been the return of Alexander Radulov. He has been the kind of dynamic force that Nashville fans have been clamoring for ever since he left in 2008. The Preds now boast more offensive depth and versatility than perhaps they ever had before.
2) What's the biggest question mark surrounding Nashville heading into the playoffs?
Defensive cohesion could be a concern given all the new guys in the lineup, and the depth defensemen can be taken advantage of. The team still tends to get out-shot and relies on Pekka Rinne to be a difference-maker.
3) If there's one player on the Preds that will have a breakout playoff campaign, who will it be?
Patric Hornqvist has been the Preds' leading goal-scorer two of the last three seasons, but hasn't burst through in the playoffs yet. This could be his time, since opponents will now have to handle both Martin Erat and Alex Radulov as well. Typically those three have played on separate lines, forcing opponents to expose a lesser defense pair against one of them.
4) When all's said and done, the Preds' playoff chances hinge on ...
The ability of Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad to play a punishing style of hockey and wear down key opposing players over the course of a series. In previous years, it has always seemed like it's Nashville's stars who pick themselves off the ice repeatedly and are exhausted by the time the deciding games are played.
5) Give a prediction. How far will Nashville go in these Stanley Cup Playoffs?
The Predators should take another step forward as a franchise and make the Western Conference finals. They're deep, relatively healthy, and have a nice combination of youth, talent and experience at their disposal. No matter how good your team is, it also takes a few fortunate bounces to make a deep run for the Cup, so the remaining question is whether the hockey gods will show favor on Barry Trotz and the boys.
For more on the Predators, check in with On the Forecheck.