By Steve Silverman 

Preds earning position as worthy favorite

The Nashville Predators had a big taste of success last spring when they rolled through the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks before pushing the Pittsburgh Penguins hard for six games in losing the Stanley Cup Final.

The Preds gained an identity with that run as a true contender, and they have continued to grow this year. With less than three weeks to go in the regular season, the Preds have the lead in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy. That honor won’t help them in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but it will give them home-ice advantage in every round of the playoffs.

Head coach Peter Laviolette’s team is on a major roll, and they are 14-0-1 in their last 15 games. They have broken open a close race in the Central Division with the Winnipeg Jets and the Western Conference with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

This is a team that has grown from their playoff experience of a year ago, and they may be quite comfortable in the favorite’s role when as the postseason begins.

The core of this team is their top-four defense consisting of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban. The third pairing of Yannick Weber and hard-hitting Alexei Emelin may be as good as any in the league.

While the defense is spectacular most nights, the offense is quite competent. The top line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson have a relentless characteristic to their game. Forsberg and Arvidsson have unrelenting talent, while Johansen still gets a push from his past association with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

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Credit: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

He was the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft by the Blue Jackets and he was coming into his own with a 33-goal season in 2013-14, and 26-goal season the following year. However, when hard-to-please John Tortorella came aboard in 2015-16, he made it clear that Johansen was not his kind of player and traded him to the Preds for Seth Jones.

The trade appeared to have worked out well for both teams. As far as the Preds are concerned, Johansen knows how to get the top line going at crucial moments.

Perhaps the most important factor for the Preds in goaltender Pekka Rinne, who is having a sensational year with a 40-9-4 record, a 2.21 goals-against average, a .931 save percentage and eight shutouts.

His teammates recognize his contribution in a big way. “In our opinion, he’s been the most valuable player for us,” Johansen said. “(He) definitely will be recognized, I’m sure, come the award time in Vegas this year for more than one. … He’s just so motivated. He’s such a professional, and he’s such a leader on this team.”

Rinne may just be able to lead the Preds to the top of the mountain, where they will gladly accept the Stanley Cup.

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Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images

Stars falling short at worst time

The Dallas Stars were inside the Western Conference playoff structure when they went on a six-game road trip starting March 11 at Pittsburgh.

Head coach Ken Hitchcock saw his team record an 0-4-2 record that may cause them to miss the playoffs. In addition to losing to playoff teams like the Penguins, Maple Leafs, Jets and Capitals, they also fell to postseason outsiders in the Canadiens and Senators.

Tyler Seguin uttered his relief at returning home.  “The road trip from hell is over,” Seguin said. “Nothing you can really do now. Got to get home. Got to get points. We’re playing some good teams, but we’ve got to find a way here.”

The Stars have eight games remaining on their schedule, and they have three straight home games against the Bruins, Canucks and Flyers. They are two points behind the Ducks for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.

Ben Bishop is out with a sprained knee, and that means Kari Lehtonen needs to pick it up in goal for the Stars. He comes into the home-stand on a five-game losing streak and his save percentage was less 90.0 percent in four of the losses.

Seguin and Jamie Benn have to do their part, but if Lehtonen doesn’t suddenly improve his game, the Stars are not likely to be a playoff team.

Potential playoff scenarios

If the playoffs started today (March 21), here’s what the matchups would look like, and a thumbnail analysis of what the key factors would be in each series.

Eastern Conference

(1A) Tampa Bay Lightning vs (WC2) New Jersey Devils – Lightning explosiveness may be too much for resilient Taylor Hall & Co.

(1M) Washington Capitals vs. (WC1) Philadelphia Flyers – Capitals have been there so many times and is this finally their year? It may not be if Philly offense is percolating.

(2M) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3M) Columbus Blue Jackets – A year ago, Nashville finally got over the hump against Chicago. Can streaking Columbus finally do the same against back-to-back Stanley Cup champions?

(2A) Boston Bruins vs. (3A) Toronto Maple Leafs – A spectacular series featuring Boston’s relentlessness and Toronto’s dynamic speed could be on tap.

Western Conference

(1C) Nashville Predators vs. (WC2) Anaheim Ducks  — Nashville’s power up and down the lineup makes this a tough assignment for Ducks

(1P) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (WC1) Colorado Avalanche – Well-balanced Golden Knights should advance here if they can handle playoff pressure. That’s a big if.

(2C) Winnipeg Jets vs. (3C) Minnesota Wild – Blake Wheeler takes charge for Jets as they take advantage of their playoff opportunity and engage hard-working Wild.

(2P) San Jose Sharks vs. (3P) Los Angeles Kings – Los Angeles will try to rekindle championship form of previous years, while Sharks will have to dig deep to finally break their string of postseason disappointments.

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