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Mike Harrington: Predators live up to billing, look like Cup favorite

The Nashville Predators are no flash in the pan. They've been building, building and building to the point where they're now the best team in the NHL and a favorite to win the Stanley Cup come June.

The Preds, you may recall, were two wins away last spring before the Pittsburgh Penguins dashed the dreams of "HockeyTonk," the party staged by fans inside Bridgestone Arena and by the thousands outside on Broadway in the Music City. There's been no hangover this season, just a quiet confidence that the lessons they learned last year will help them this time around.

"We can hate the result," coach Peter Laviolette said Monday morning in KeyBank Center when recalling the final. "But there's no question we're a more experienced team because of it."

The Predators lost a tough six-game series to Chicago in 2015, the year of the Blackhawks' last Cup run. In 2016, they dispatched Anaheim in Game Seven of the first round but lost at San Jose in Game Seven of the second round on the Sharks' path to their only final.

Then came last year. A stunning sweep of Chicago – which may have KO'd the Hawks' entire era of success – was followed by a six-game win over St. Louis and another six-gamer over Anaheim that put Nashville in the its first final.

Right now, the Predators are definitely the favorite in the West to get back to the final. And although Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Boston or Washington might have something to say about it, it says here that the Predators should be the pick to win the whole darn thing.

Hot chicken and barbecue for everybody.

The Wraparound: Predators 4, Sabres 0

The natural tendency might be to put things on fast forward, to try to get to June while the calendar is still on March. That can result in leaks in a team's play, maybe a losing streak. If it happens in the playoffs, it can mean a quick exit. Doesn't look like it's happening with this team.

"Our guys have done a really good job just focusing on the work," Laviolette said prior to their surgical 4-0 win over the Sabres. "They work hard. We don't look too far ahead. We don't look too far behind. We just go on day to day. We talk about Buffalo. How we're going to beat them, how we're going to play."

"We remind ourselves about what we did well last year," said veteran defenseman Mattias Ekholm. "We got into the playoffs with confidence. You can't shut it down the last 10 games and push a button for the playoffs. You have to stay with it. There's still things to fight for here. There's home ice advantage, division title, conference. We want to keep going to come into the playoffs with that swagger, that confidence."

Hockey Tonk: Nashville ready for its first show on NHL's biggest stage

You look at the stat sheet and the numbers are just eye-popping.

Nashville is 48-14-10, including 23-7-6 on the road. The Preds are 14-0-1 in their last 15 games and set a franchise record for the longest point streak with Monday's win. They've won nine straight road games and are 12-0-3 in the last 15 away from home, both franchise records as well. They haven't lost in regulation on the road since January 2. That's just stupid good.

In names like Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, the Preds have the game's best defense corps. But the balance through the lineup is simply awesome. Nashville has an NHL-best 14 players with 10 or more goals (led by Viktor Arvidsson's 26), and eight players with 40+ points (Arvidsson has 54 while Filip Forsberg and Subban have 51 apiece).

"They were a really good hockey club last year and they've only gotten better," said Sabres forward Scott Wilson, who played in the final for Pittsburgh. "They don't have a 100-point guy either, which is something you normally have on a top team. It just goes to show the depth they have and all the hard-working guys who play the right way. They've found their identity and they're sticking with it."

Predators forwards Mike Fisher, left, and Scott Hartnell (17) celebrate Fisher's goal in the second period against the Sabres. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

In goal, Pekka Rinne improved to 40-9-4 and is adding his name to the Hart Trophy conversation while pushing to the top of the Vezina race. Rinne is 21-1-1 in his last 23 games and tied his personal best with his 11th straight win.

"We've added a lot more depth and that's a key ingredient if you want to go deep," Rinne said. "I love this team. When you add players, you create competition within and that's a healthy thing for our team. Nobody can be complacent. You have to fight for your right to be in the lineup."

Rinne was the story Monday, making 35 saves to post his career-high eighth shutout of the season while winning No. 40. He was stellar in his crease, swallowing up rebounds and playing the position almost perfectly.

"I'm feeling like I'm trying to really focus on that, trying to keep myself more quiet but still try to play athletic and be ready," said Rinne, 35. "It's always a little bit of a balancing act but I'm feeling good and seeing the puck well."

Sure is. During the 11-game winning streak, he's allowed just 18 goals and has a .950 save percentage.

"I got off to a good start and since then I feel like I've been playing well and putting up consistent hockey all year," said Rinne. "There hasn't been bad stretches of games. There might be games or goals here or there you want to have back but for the most part I'm keeping it super simple, feeling confident."

That confidence carries through the lineup. Think about how much better this group is. Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala, who have combined for 34 goals and 91 points this season, both missed the Cup final with serious leg injuries. The Preds signed Pittsburgh Nick Bonino in free agency and have traded for both Kyle Turris (Ottawa) and Ryan Hartman (Chicago). That's five new forwards for a team that was two wins away last June.

"The depth for sure is important to have that offensive skill and have multiple lines that can do damage," Ekholm said. "We were a young group when we started together 3-4-5 years ago. As a group, we've had a core for a while now replacing just a couple pieces a year and it's paid big dividends for us."

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