Columnists, Sports

Dropping the Gloves: Nashville clinches first playoff spot and is on the prowl for a Stanley Cup finals trip

P.K. Subban will be key to the Nashville Predators’ defense in the NHL playoffs. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIPEDIA

The Nashville Predators’ season did not end well in last year’s Stanley Cup finals. Yes, Nashville made it to the final round for the first time in franchise history, but came up short, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.

The beginning of this season didn’t start too well either. The Predators were without captain Mike Fisher, who announced his retirement just before the season began.

However, now they’re the first team headed to the playoffs with Fisher back on the payroll after he signed a one-year contract with Nashville on Feb. 26.

The Predators are right on track to make an appearance in the finals once again, but they’re up against tougher competition this time. Last year, they swept the Chicago Blackhawks — a former Western Conference elite — in the first round.

After beating the St. Louis Blues and the Anaheim Ducks, Nashville made it all the way to the final series. The success was not suspected, and especially after sweeping a team with so much playoff experience, the Predators were on a playoff roll.

Nashville has had a full season of reflection on that devastating Stanley Cup finals loss, and it is not prepared to watch another team hoist the cup again.

The keys to victory

Pekka Rinne has been part of the Nashville organization since he was drafted in 2004, but he really started gaining attention as an elite goaltender eight years ago. Now, he’s a definite contender for the Vezina Trophy, which is awarded each year to the best goaltender in the NHL.

The Predators also have a strong defensive unit on their roster, mainly lead by P.K. Subban and Roman Josi. So far, it’s been hard for any offense to get past these defensive players.

Offensively, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala are all 25 or younger, but they’re still key aspects of the offense. Nashville has been able to capitalize on its young talent and use them in veteran roles.

When Fisher left at the beginning of last season, there was fear that the Predators would be lost without their leader. But the younger players stepped up, and leadership was no trouble at all for Nashville to deal with.

The path to the finals won’t be an easy road

The battle for the Central Division might be easier than it has been in years past, but they’ll still need to at least get past the Winnipeg Jets, who have fought hard this season to be a top-two team in the division.

If the Predators want any chance to make it back to the finals, their main priority should be the Vegas Golden Knights. Nashville and Las Vegas will most likely be competing in the Western Conference finals, which could very well be a seven-game series.

Then there’s the Eastern Conference. Whoever ends up in the finals to represent the Eastern Conference will certainly give Nashville a run for their money.

Contenders are the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals. All three are in for a tough battle in the first three rounds of the playoffs, so whoever comes out on top will be ready to win.

With that being said, the Eastern Conference competition is definitely more tenacious, so whoever is represented in the finals will likely be exhausted from three rounds of physically draining play.

The Western Conference side won’t be as strenuous in the first rounds of play. But if the Predators want to win the cup, they need to be prepared to face their toughest battle in the finals.

There’s no doubt that the Predators will be a big force in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but they just need to stick with the momentum they have right now if they want a chance to hoist that cup.

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