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Predators on the Playoff Prowl

Pundits around the NHL are shaking their heads this morning over the fact that Nashville has actually clinched a playoff spot, thanks to last night's 3-2 victory over the Blues at home, combined with Vancouver's 2-1 loss to the Oilers in front of an understandably disappointed crowd at GM Place. Reaction from the Canucks bloggers can be found here and here, with one jubilant Oilers fan here.

There was no limping to the finish line, but rather a strong drive (5-0-1) that lifted Nashville past the struggling Canucks. For Preds fans, it's obviously a time of relief and celebration, and a good time to stick out your chest and declare, "nobody thought we could do it!" But was that really so?

This preseason roundup saw 3 of 10 experts picking Nashville to make the playoffs, with James Mirtle picking them as high as 5th in the West. ESPN's Scott Burnside, a persistent critic of Nashville as a hockey market, picked them 11th, and JavaGeek's amalgamated standings prediction had them pegged for 9th. In short, while many prominent voices called for the Predators to sink into the NHL basement, there were quite a few who also saw strength remaining on a roster gutted by a few high-profile departures. Back in September, I projected Nashville for a 5th-7th spot in the West, and while things don't ever work out exactly as projected, on balance it was close.

While Paul Kariya's offensive contributions were missed, the team was still able to muster an above-average Goals For figure, thanks to 70-point seasons from both Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont. Despite Kimmo Timonen heading to Philadelphia, the blue line played well throughout most of the year, and still boasts tremendous depth as Barry Trotz struggles to find ice time for Kevin Klein and Ville Koistinen. Losing a #1 goaltender like Tomas Vokoun always hurts, and although Chris Mason stumbled this year, Dan Ellis stepped into the breach much like Mason did the year before (#1 in the NHL in Save Percentage? Pinch me.). As an added bonus, the Preds have extra draft picks coming up this summer that should keep the pipeline stocked with young talent for a few more years at least.

Alexander Radulov took a solid step forward in his sophomore season, coming pretty close to my call for "something like 200 shots, a 13-15% scoring rate, and 25-30 goals." He has 26 goals on 180 shots (14.4 Shooting Percentage) with one game left. The streakiness that plagued him in 2006-7 appears to have carried through to this year, as he'll light up the scoreboard for a couple weeks then go cold for a month, so there's certainly room to improve on there.

GM David Poile made the best of a bad situation, patching together a roster with a bare minimum budget, but making maximum impact. Who would have guessed that Jan Hlavac would have been such a presence down the stretch this year?

As the team heads into Chicago tonight, a win gives them a shot at the #7 spot and a first-round matchup against San Jose for the third year in a row. Frankly, I think they've got a better shot against Detroit coming out the #8 spot, so Barry, be sure to give some of those big horses a rest tonight and save the team's strength for next week. They'll need every bit of it no matter who they end up facing.

UPDATE: It looks like the Tennessean's John Glennon agrees about tonight's game...

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