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Be deeply afraid of the Nashville Predators

The best team in hockey this season is still gaining steam.

Nashville Predators v Colorado Avalanche - Game Six Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

After the Avalanche gamely fought them for five games, the Predators marched into Colorado on Sunday and blasted them to smithereens. Nashville’s 5-0 win ended the teams’ Western Conference quarterfinal in six games. Having dispatched the plucky Avalanche, they’ll play an excellent Jets team in the second round.

The Predators were only playing this game because the Avalanche had stolen Game 5 in Nashville two nights earlier with a pair of late goals. The Preds were the better team on the ice in that game, but Avalanche goalie Andrew Hammond made an absurd 44 saves on 45 shots, and his team managed to stave off elimination and get a flicker of hope.

But Game 6 was an onslaught from the start. The first goal the Predators scored didn’t count, with officials ruling that they’d interfered with Hammond. They scored one that counted a few minutes later, when Mattias Ekholm blasted a slapper past Hammond from 44 feet.

Austin Watson added an insurance marker three minutes later, while Hammond and a couple of teammates flailed around on the ice in the goalmouth. Filip Forsberg scored unassisted later to make it 3-0, and Nick Bonino added one to make it 4-0. Forsberg had been silky all series, and his goal streaking down the left wing was gorgeous:

So was Viktor Arvidsson’s second goal of the series at the start of the third period:

This was part playoff game, part dunk contest.

They had to play more games than they preferred. But this series ended fittingly, with Nashville proving beyond doubt how much better it was than the competition.

The Predators have quietly gone about being the best team in hockey this year. They played close enough to that level against the Avs.

At least their year felt pretty quiet to me. The Predators introduced themselves to the broader sports world with last year’s trip to the Stanley Cup Final, but the hockey world didn’t focus much on them while they were racking up 117 points and winning the Presidents’ Trophy.

They only had seven national TV games on their schedule in the regular season. They’re in a non-traditional hockey market, even one that’s proven beyond a doubt how much it cares about hockey. They have a star with personality in P.K. Subban, but as usual, they lack individual scoring flourish. Their top point-getters, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, finished in the low 60s. All of that contributes in some measure to why the best team on the planet this season feels like it’s playing at least a little beneath the radar.

The Avalanche gave them a respectable push. It took moxie to win a potential closeout contest in Nashville in Game 5. Maybe you’d have preferred to see the No. 1 seed have less trouble with a team that barely made the playoffs. But the Predators were able to grind the Avs down over time, culminating in a laugher of a Game 6.

This year, the Predators have the pieces to finish what they started last year.

Johansen’s health is so important. The team’s top center, a thigh injury in the Western Conference Final last year robbed the Predators of a crucial presence down the middle in their next series against the Penguins. He’s been healthy all year. The playoffs are long, but if he stays on the ice and keeps playing like himself, the Predators will have a dimension for the stretch drive that they didn’t last year: a true No. 1 center to make them tick. He had five points in this series and is primed to contribute the rest of the way.

The rest of the Predators’ core that drove last year’s run to the Final is still here, save for winger James Neal, whom Vegas plucked in the expansion draft. Pekka Rinne wasn’t much good in Round 1, but he’s a Vezina Trophy finalist for a reason. He gets material support from what’s still probably the deepest group of top-four defensemen in the league: Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis. The only thing they’re missing is a top-flight scorer, but they’ve proven they can get by without one.

Basically, this is a team without a weakness.

The 2018 Predators are like the 2017 Predators, but more seasoned and with Johansen so far healthy and not watching from the press box. Last year’s team came one fluky Game 6 Penguins goal in the Final away from winning the whole thing. How far can this year’s go?