If Nashville was on fire for the Predators' first trip to the Stanley Cup Final last season, it could downright burn to the ground this summer. As much and as quickly as things change in the NHL, there should be little doubt, with less than a month until the start of the 2018 postseason, that the defending Western Conference champions are one of the most obvious favorites to win the Cup.
You can start with the fact that Nashville is coming off its 10th straight win, tying the longest streak of any team this season. The playoffs are right around the corner, and just as they built steam for their surprise conference-title run at the tail end of last year, the Preds are unleashing their best performances at the best time, scoring at least four goals in seven of their last 10 victories and logging shutouts in two others.
An astounding 21-4-4 since the start of the new year, the Predators haven't had a sub-.500 month since October, the first stretch of the season, and somehow, entering the weekend, they're just one point behind the Tampa Bay Lightning in the standings -- a Lightning team that has dominated and Presidents' Trophy projections since storming out to a 28-8-2 start.
Here, we present three additional reasons that Nashville should be on, if not owning, your Stanley Cup radar:
Pekka Rinne is as good as ever
One of the main reasons the Predators played spoiler and nearly upended the champion Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017 was Rinne's age-34 dominance in the net. It first seemed like wishful thinking to expect the grizzled vet to come close to his playoff run from a year ago, but he's actually been even better as of late. With the postseason right around the corner, no one is hotter in goal, as Rinne is an incredible 18-1-1 in his last 20 starts, four of which were shutout wins. On the year, the net-minder has more victories and shutouts than all but Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy, and he's got top-six marks in both goals allowed per game and save percentage.
They have the NHL's deepest lineup
This might actually prove bittersweet as the Predators try to figure out who to sit for the playoffs, but from top to bottom, there's no question that Nashville is scary. They dazzled last season by digging deep on the bench, and that was largely without big names like Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala. Now, even with James Neal doing his thing in Vegas, it's impossible to find a spot that isn't without options for coach Peter Laviolette. General manager David Poile has stocked this roster well beyond the likes of Fiala, Johansen, Filip Forsberg, P.K. Subban and Viktor Arvidsson. Ten vets deep on the team's list of points leaders, and you've got potential playoff starters in Nick Bonino, Kyle Turris, Scott Hartnell, Ryan Ellis and Austin Watson.
Their record is incredibly balanced
Regular-season standings only mean so much. The Predators themselves exemplified that with their 2017 run, which began with a No. 16 ranking entering the playoffs. But couple Nashville's veteran dominance in the net with the team's ridiculously loaded depth, and it's easy to see why the Preds are one of only two teams in the NHL with at least 20 wins both at home and on the road. Bridgestone Arena was made famous for its roaring postseason atmosphere during the Predators' last try for a Stanley Cup, but this time around, Nashville has been almost as good elsewhere, going 9-0-2 on the road since January.