Believe it or not, the Nashville Predators have been one of the most consistently successful teams in the NHL in recent memory. Since the last pre-lockout season of 2003-2004, the Preds have made the playoffs for six of the last seven seasons under steady head coach Barry Trotz.
Their lone season out of postseason play was a 10th place finish in 2008-09, in which they were eliminated in the final weekend of the season.
Essentially, Nashville has been playing meaningful hockey since 2003. Few teams in the league can make the same claim. Unfortunately though, that success has fizzled come playoff time.
All five playoff visits have been first-round losses. That's not to say they were vastly inferior teams. They clearly weren't (with the exception of 2004 as a No. 8 seed vs. Detroit), so the plucky Preds are always a threat once the puck drops.
Next up this season for Nashville are the Anaheim Ducks, who found themselves leap-frogging half of the playoff teams in the final weekend of the season to gain home ice as the No. 4 seed, while Nashville takes on the familiar role of underdog as the No. 5 seed.
Both teams were among the hottest in the league over the last 10 games, with Nashville earning 15 points over that span and Anaheim reeling in 14.
So, with the Preds' ghosts playoffs past fresh in the minds of the fans, here are some reasons to believe this year can be different in Nashville.
Rinne may not be a household name, but you can blame that on his playing under the radar in Nashville. Any big and/or Canadian market and this Finnish netminder would be talked about in the capacity he deserves.
Coming in second in the NHL in save percentage (.930) and third in Goals Against Average (2.12), Rinne absolutely has the ability to single-handedly win a series for the Preds. Or, at the very least, slow down the Ducks' offensive firepower.
One of Rinne's strengths is how much ground he can cover in net. At 6' 5", he plays the angles and covers the bottom of the net surprisingly well for a goaltender his size. That size also allows him to move quickly from side to side on odd-man rushes or penalty kills.
Now in his third full season as the Preds starting netminder, Rinne is undoubtedly ready to step up, carry his team on his back if need be and lead the way past the Ducks.
This dynamic defensive duo for Nashville could be the best in the league. Weber and Suter have emerged as elite franchise defensemen in a system that preaches defense and accountability.
In the Preds' three regular season wins over Anaheim, Weber and Suter (as well as Rinne) were largely responsible for attempting to neutralize the ridiculously potent "RPG" line of Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.
However, it's not only defensive accountability that Suter and Weber bring to the table. The duo can be useful offensively as well, especially on the power play.
Weber has one of the hardest shots in the league, proven by two runner-up finishes in the last two NHL Skills Hardest Shot Competitions, and his now-legendary goal for Team Canada that went through the net in the 2010 Olympics.
With that being said, it is the defense between the two that will worry Anaheim and their faithful.
The Ducks rely on offensively overpowering the competition, and that can be—and has been—compromised this season by the Suter-Weber combination on the Nashville blueline.
Interesting note on the Nashville defensive corps: Orange County native and Preds prospect Johnathon Blum was called up to Nashville late in the season and will return home to play in Anaheim for the first time in Game 1 of the series. Blum has been very solid in his short tenure with the Preds, and one can expect the adrenaline to be flowing as he makes his hometown debut.
Kostitsyn has had an absolute career resurgence in his first year with Nashville.
The former Canadien has fit in perfectly and led the team with 23 goals and tied for the lead in points with 50. Remember, this is not an offensive system, so Kostitsyn's stats don't tell the whole story.
Kostitsyn, along with mid-season pickup Mike Fisher and Patric Hornqvist, have developed into a very solid line and could give Anaheim a fit in the first round.
He has improved throughout the year. Until the season finale in St. Louis, Kostitsyn was riding an 11-game point scoring streak, in which he tallied 15 points (7 G, 8 A). The 23-year-old from Belarus looks ready to produce when the stage is the biggest.
In only two games against the Ducks this season, Kostitsyn racked up four points (3 G, 1 A) while helping Nashville to wins in both contests.
As mentioned earlier, the Ducks try to simply outscore their opponent. Not in the easy way it might seem, but with a relentless wave of skill and power.
The Ducks, predictably, have a power play ranking third in the NHL while converting in over 23 percent of their opportunities. Nashville is one of the few penalty kill units that can slow down this attack.
Ranking fifth in the NHL and third in the conference, the Preds have a knack for slowing down even the most powerful offenses. Led by gritty penalty killers such as Shane O'Brien and Jerred Smithson, along with goaltender Rinne, Nashville is near the top of the PK leaderboard year in and year out.
The Predators are a very disciplined bunch as well, taking the second fewest penalties in the Western conference this season.
The lack of penalties taken mixed with great penalty killing may be able to negate one of Anaheim's biggest weapons—the power play.
Only Buffalo's Lindy Ruff has a longer current tenure with one team in the NHL than Nashville coach Barry Trotz, and for good reason.
With the team from its start in 1998, Trotz has quietly (or should I say silently) helped build the Predators from an expansion team to a perennial playoff contender.
Although he has yet to win the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year, Trotz's defensive-minded, no-nonsense style has been just what the Preds have needed over the years to stay not only competitive but a scary team for anyone to play.
Trotz knows the drill. This will be his sixth playoff berth in the last seven years. He will have his players ready to go and fighting it out—from the opening faceoff until the final seconds.
Not to be forgotten is General Manager David Poile. Poile has also been with the club since the very beginning, and he makes moves to improve his team on a limited budget on a yearly basis. In addition to pulling Kostitsyn out of oblivion in Montreal and bringing him to Nashville, he added two-way veteran forward Mike Fisher from Ottawa in a February trade.
As certain as the Preds are to be in the playoff race every year, Trotz and Poile are just as certain to be big reasons why.
Sure, every fan base believes its fans are the best or loudest or this or that. And, in many cases, they have a point.
But there is something about a playoff game in Nashville. Maybe it's the standing ovation the Nashville crowd gives the team during media timeouts—done without the help of Jumbotron graphics or PA announcements.
Maybe it's what has been described by some outsiders as a "rabid, almost college-like" atmosphere.
Maybe it's pure coincidence.
Either way, the Preds have had great home ice advantage in the recent years and all but one of their playoff wins in five previous trips have come at their home rink. In addition, the Preds held this season's third best home record in the NHL.
Despite false assumptions by many that hockey hasn't—and won't—catch on in Nashville, the Predators continue to fill Bridgestone Arena at an average of nearly 95 percent a game and are one of the loudest arenas in the league.
You don't only have to ask Nashville fans to find that opinion either.
The Preds are always a difficult team to deal with at home, especially in the postseason. If the Ducks don't come to play in those road games, they will likely be staring a series deficit in the face.