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After downing Blues, Predators looking like the clear cut favorite in the West

After downing the Blackhawks in four and the Blues in six, the Predators are looking like they deserve to be the favorite no matter who they're up against in the Western Conference final.

With their 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues, the Nashville Predators punched their ticket to the Western Conference final for the first time in franchise history. And after coming one win shy of earning a spot in the third round one year ago, getting the chance to play for the Western Conference crown is a sign that the Predators have taken that next step forward. 

They won’t be content with an opportunity alone, though, but given the way they’ve been playing, they might not have to. While there’s still no conclusion to the Pacific Division series, which was pushed to a deciding seventh game thanks to the Edmonton Oilers’ 7-1 blowout of the Anaheim Ducks, it’s hard not to look at the way this Predators’ team has played through the first 10 games of the post-season and be incredibly impressed. 

First came the defeat of the Chicago Blackhawks, an unthinkable series win not in the sense that Nashville emerged victorious but in the way the Predators thoroughly dominated the West’s top seed. Riding high off of that victory, and rested thanks to the swiftness of their first-round victory, Nashville rolled into the series against St. Louis, the league’s hottest team over the past two-plus months. Despite taking six games to dispose of the Blues, there was never really a time when the Predators seemed all that panicked.

The game on paper and on ice can be two entirely different things, but one has to imagine that with the way Nashville has played, they’ll likely skate into the Western Conference final as the favorite regardless of which club wins Game 7 between Edmonton and Anaheim. Here are five reasons why:

Top talents finding twine

In previous years, the Predators have been a tough out but without boasting any top-tier talent that really put fear into opposing goaltenders. That has changed, though. Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson were 30-goal scorers during the regular season, Ryan Johansen put up 61 points and two other forwards, James Neal and Mike Fisher, potted at least 40 points. For once, the offensive side of Nashville’s game can truly be considered a strength. It has shown as much in the post-season.

In the first round, the trio of Forsberg, Johansen and Arvidsson led the Predators’ offense, netting 15 points across the four-game set with the Blackhawks. Most impressive was Johansen, who chipped in a goal and six points, and Arvidsson and Forsberg each potted two goals across the series. All three slowed in the second round against the Blues, but it was the Predators’ top line that came to play with the chance to close out the series. The scoring play on the game- and series-winning goal in Sunday’s Game 6 read Johansen from Arvidsson and Forsberg. It was after Forsberg started the play up ice that Arvidsson laid a perfect saucer pass on Johansen’s tape, and a quick deke put the puck past St. Louis goaltender Jake Allen and Nashville into the third round.

There are few lines that have shown the ability to break open a series quite like Nashville's top unit, and coach Peter Laviolette doesn't have to be worried about whether or not the 'JoFA' line can show up. They've proven they can produce against the likes of Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook, Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko.

Depth players continue to contribute

Even while it was the top line that sealed the series, the Predators’ star trio only earned the opportunity because of the stellar play of the depth forwards in the early part of the series. The Blues defense found a way to shut down the top line — or at least keep them off the score sheet — and that meant the onus was on the rest of the offense to step up. And did they ever.

Neal, who was the Predators’ third-highest goal-scorer during the regular season, potted three goals against the Blues, and other forwards to chip in on the offense included Colin Wilson, Vernon Fiddler, Cody McLeod and Calle Jarnkrok’s, whose empty-net goal was the insurance marker that sent the Bridgestone Center crowd into overdrive in Game 6.

All the more impressive, however, is that Fisher was the only Predators’ forward to dress in all six games against the Blues who didn’t find the score sheet. Every other forward who suited up throughout the series was making an impact offensively one way or another. Opposing defenders already have their hands full trying to slow down the top line, making it difficult to spread out the defense to slow down the Predators from top to bottom. So, with all four lines putting points on the board, Nashville's attack looks ready to roll in Round Three.

Blueline blasting away

Other teams in the West are getting big performances from their top stars. Leon Draisaitl, for instance, is leading the Oilers in scoring thanks to a big Game 6 performance. Meanwhile, Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf is one of the playoffs’ top point-getters and has a better points-per-game rate than all but Evgeni Malkin. But not a single team has their offensive stars going while also boasting three defensemen within the top four in scoring.

Standing out at the top of the class is Ryan Ellis. He’s not the biggest, nor is he the fastest, but the Predators rearguard is showing he has the offensive acumen to make a difference when it counts. While averaging nearly 24 minutes per game, Ellis has managed to blast home four goals — tied for the most by any defender — and his nine points are second behind only Erik Karlsson. Right alongside Ellis is Roman Josi, who has four goals and eight points through 10 games and has skated monster minutes, and rounding out the list of Nashville’s top defensive contributors is P.K. Subban, who is thriving in his first playoff as a Predator. His one goal and six assists put him into a tie for fourth in scoring among defensemen, but it’s his nearly 25:30 ice time per game that sets him apart from others.

Anaheim has its own defensive studs in Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen and Cam Fowler, and Adam Larsson is proving the deal that sent Taylor Hall to New Jersey wasn’t as one-sided as initially believed. But with the way the Predators’ top three is playing, Nashville is going to have an edge on the backend against any opponent. And that’s without even mentioning Mattias Ekholm, the steady-as-a-rock rearguard who plays seemingly mistake-free hockey.

Rinne reaching next level in post-season

A lot of credit is going to the Predators’ blueline this post-season and with good reason, but Rinne didn’t all of a sudden slow down after shutting out the Blackhawks twice in the first round. After being the best goaltender in the first round, Rinne has remained top of the class through the second, as well.

Since the start of the playoffs, Rinne has turned in a sparkling .951 save percentage, and he’s been the top goaltender at five-a-side, too. In fact, with Allen and the Blues heading home, the next-best goaltender still remaining in the post-season is Henrik Lundqvist, and ‘King Henrik’ only boasts a .942 SP through 11 games. That pales in comparison to the .955 mark Rinne has turned in at 5-on-5 through 10 contests. Thanks to his stunning save percentage numbers, Rinne is starting to look like a brick wall in goal. Sunday’s goal against in the 3-1 victory over St. Louis was only the 14th marker Rinne had surrendered in the playoffs. Lundqvist is again the next-best goaltender in that category, but through 11 games the Rangers netminder has allowed 26 goals. 

Both Cam Talbot and John Gibson — barring Sunday’s blowout loss — have been good enough to fight their way into the second round. The truth is, though, that no goaltender in the league has been as rock solid as Rinne. Winning the goaltending duel is going to be incredibly difficult against the Predators.

Suffocating defensive structure

As stunning as the Predators’ defeat of the Blackhawks was, it was the way in which Nashville completely quieted Chicago’s offense that was most shocking. Never in the series did it appear that the Blackhawks’ offense, which was the ninth-best during the regular season, could sustain any pressure or breakdown the defensive shell the Predators had created. That shone through in the underlying numbers, too. In the first round, Nashville allowed the fourth-fewest shot attempts against — a mere 56.3 per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.

Somehow, the Predators’ defense was even more stifling against the Blues.

Through the six games it took to dispatch of St. Louis, Nashville allowed 53.9 shot attempts against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, and the only team better throughout the second round has been the Washington Capitals. Getting the puck through the tight checking in the neutral zone proved tough for the Blues, just as it did the Blackhawks, and given the way the Predators have seemingly been able to dictate the game against top competition, it doesn’t bode well for either the Ducks’ or Oilers’ offense.

Stars such as Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Toews, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Paul Stastny have all tried their hand at making an impact against Nashville’s defense. All have come up largely empty-handed. Be it Draisaitl and Connor McDavid or Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell, it’s going to be tough for even the game's best to generate any offense against a team that has bought in as much as the Predators have defensively.

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