The Nashville Predators were hardly in the news for the right reasons last offseason before the NHL lockout took center stage, but they still have a realistic chance of making a playoff run in 2013 if they focus on these keys.
Now that the lockout is officially over and we're set up for a 48-game season, it's time to break down the upcoming season. The puck drops on Jan. 19, with all but four teams playing opening-day games.
The perception across the league may be that the Preds aren't contenders after losing an elite defenseman in Ryan Suter, but that's hardly the mindset in Nashville as a very talented team will represent Music City in 2013.
Let's take a look at the biggest keys to a successful 2013 season for the Nashville Predators.
Gain Confidence for Early Road Trip
A huge component of Nashville's success in recent seasons has been strong starts, but that won't come easy in 2013.
Glance at the Preds' schedule and you'll see exactly why. Yes, they open up with two home games, but then face a daunting seven-game road trip where they go everywhere from Minnesota to Los Angeles to St. Louis.
Not to mention, six of those seven games will be against teams who made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2012.
The Preds tend to gain a ton of momentum and confidence from playing in front of their rowdy fans in "Smashville," so starting the season at 2-0 would get their wheels going heading into that scary stretch of road games.
In a lockout-shortened season with little preparation time, that will be a huge key.
Find Shea Weber's Long-Term Defensive Partner
You know exactly what you're getting from Shea Weber. He'll hardly make mistakes, anchor offensive sets swiftly and notch 25 minutes of ice time on a consistent basis.
Who should Nashville put beside Weber?
What Preds fans don't know for the first time in years is if there will be a reliable defender alongside Weber. Nashville was fortunate enough to have two of the best defenders in the NHL to pair up on the same line, but there are 98 million reasons why that luxury is gone.
Fortunately, they have plenty of young defensive players who have loads of potential to be future stars. Ryan Ellis was selected 11th overall in the 2009 draft and showed a lot of promise last year in his first rookie season. Roman Josi was also a rookie but played much more like a veteran.
Thirty-year-old Hal Gill is also a potential candidate if Barry Trotz and company want one reliable line, but it'll take consistency away from one of the other two lines.
Simply put, it's a decision that will likely make or break the entire season.
Step on Red Wings While They're Down
There's no doubt that the big, bad Detroit Red Wings are the Preds' biggest rival, but they're far less of a benchmark for Nashville to model themselves on after dominating them in a five-game playoff series and finishing above them in the standings.
The Preds have always been competent against their northern foes, but is this the season they prove to be a completely superior team?
The two teams will face off four times in a 48-game season, so you don't have to be a math nerd to understand each game will have huge implications on the Western Conference's playoff outlook. On top of that, two of those four showdowns come in the final six games of the regular season.
If the Preds can win their four-game season series with the Red Wings, it'll have a huge impact on their chance of making the postseason and further prove the stock of the team.
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