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Why the Nashville Predators Will Push for the Playoffs

After making the post-season in seven of eight campaigns, a stretch that ran from 2004 through 2012, the Nashville Predators have failed to qualify for two consecutive seasons. This could be associated with a few things, including but not limited to the health of star goaltender Pekka Rinne, an always improving Western Conference, and lack of offensive support up front.

That all said, the Predators are off to a phenomenal start this season, going 5-1-2 through their first eight games. There’s a lot of hockey still be played, and the winning train the Predators are on could fall off the rails at any time, but here is why the Nashville Predators will make a bid for the post-season.

Pekka Rinne is healthy again

A lot of people seem to have forgotten just how good Rinne is. In his last full campaign (2011-12), Rinne was named as a Vezina finalist, eventually losing out to Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, and had also been nominated the previous season, losing out to the Bruins Tim Thomas.

However, the past two seasons have been disappointing for the 31-year-old Finn. The numbers he posted throughout the lockout-shortened schedule were below his career averages (save percentage of .910 and GAA of 2.43, career averages are .919 and 2.38 respectively), and last year he played a mere 24 contests.

He’s clearly put that in the rear view however, as Rinne has put up a save percentage of .939, and a GAA of only 1.62 through five games this season. If his early successes are any indication, Pekka Rinne is back, and the Nashville Predators are all the better for it.

They finally have a game-breaking scorer

James Neal seems to be the guy people love to hate lately. He’s dirty, he relied on Evgeni Malkin, the guy will be useless in Nashville. These are only a few of the things I’ve heard about Neal in recent months, but the fact remains that this guy knows how to put the puck in the net.

Over the past four seasons, Neal has averaged 0.49 goals per game. Did playing with Malkin help with that? Sure, but he wasn’t the sole reason for Neal’s success. Just look at his early numbers this season: five goals in seven games. While it’s inevitable that he won’t keep this 59-goal pace up, Neal’s impact in Music City should not be undersold, and a 40-goal season is certainly a possibility.

A blossoming ‘D’ Core

While Olympic gold medalist and perennial Norris trophy candidate Shea Weber gets a lot of the attention, there is a lot of talent behind him. 24-year-old Swiss Roman Josi is developing into a rock solid top pairing defender, and continually gets better each year. 2013 fourth overall pick Seth Jones is being hyped-up as the next great blue liner in hockey, and showed why last season averaging 19:25 of ice time per game in his rookie year.

Ryan Ellis keeps inching towards reaching his offensive potential, posting 27 points in 80 games last season (in addition, he scored five points in seven games at the World Championships), while the likes of Viktor Bartley and Anton Volchenkov are solid depth players. This is a playoff-level defense without a doubt, and one that is only going to get better.

Depth up the middle

What the Predators lack in high-end talent, they make up for with depth when it comes to centers. The Preds may lack an all-star caliber top line cog, but they have several very capable NHL-quality center men.

Mike Fisher is a reliable two-way player when healthy, the question is, how long until he actually is? Top prospect Filip Forsberg is overflowing with talent and will look to make a legitimate impact this season. Off-season additions Olli Jokinen, Derek Roy, and Mike Ribeiro may be past their primes, but are still reliable point-getters.  Roy is still capable of 40 points, Jokinen is coming off a solid 43 point campaign, and Ribeiro has 60 point upside, baggage aside.

Veterans Paul Gaustad and Matt Cullen are nice bottom-six contributors, while Colin Wilson can put up his fair share of points when healthy. If everything works out well, the Preds may be able to boast the deepest group up the middle of any team out West.

They have gained ground early

While you can’t put to much stock into early season results, it’s hard not to be excited about what Nashville has been doing thus far. The early success may not seem overly significant at the moment, but when it comes down to the wire and bubble teams are battling for the final spots, the Predators will be grateful they picked up some points early.

Will it be tough to make it? Sure, the Western Conference is absolutely ridiculous, and teams that would be Eastern playoff teams, like the Vancouver Canucks and the Minnesota Wild, are considered bubble teams out West. But if they keep playing like this, the Nashville Predators could be in the race come April.

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