2012 NHL Playoffs: The Nashville Predators' time

Mar 20, 2012; Nashville, TN, USA; Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne (35) stands in the goal against the Edmonton Oilers during the first period at Bridgestone Arena. The Oilers beat the Predators 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRE

"Shea Weber will sign long-term if the Predators go deep in the playoffs."

"Management will pony up the cash to lock up Nashville's core if it makes a run at the Stanley Cup."

"Radulov will surely stay if he sees the Predators can compete at the highest level in the NHL."

If. If. If.

It used to be that Nashville and its fans were content with simply making the playoffs. After all, nobody hardly ever expected the bargain bin Predators to even make the playoffs, let alone do any damage in them. And they were right, for the most part. Until last year, Nashville never made it past the first round of the playoffs and even then looked like an over-matched team in the second round.

But things have changed.

David Poile has a core of players who appear to be ready to do something special. And he hasn't had to let them go -- as so often has been the case in the past -- because of financial constraints, yet.

Yet.

Everything that Poile and the Predators want to do seemingly hinges on the 2012 playoffs. Weber and Suter have expressed their commitment to the Predators, but have also made it clear that they want to see results. They both want to know that if they hitch their wagon to the Predators, it will take them to the top of the mountain, not sputter out before it can even make it halfway up.

Poile made his commitment pretty clear this season. He paid Pekka Rinne what he's worth and got one of the trio of Nashville's superstars locked up. He went out and got Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad -- all players who filled specific holes the Predators had early in the season.

But everything Poile has done also screams "going for it." A quick look at Cap Geek shows a lot of key contributors not under contract next season. In addition to the three trade deadline acquisitions, there's Weber, Suter, Sergei, Tootoo, Radulov.

And so we're back to the 2012 playoffs.

Poile's plan is all dependent on the Predators advancing. Suddenly, a first- or second-round exit isn't enough. If the Predators lose in five, six games, everything Poile has done up until now is pretty much moot.

"It just feels different," Trotz said on Sunday. "Back when we played the Sharks, it seemed like there was a lot more pressure back then. I don't know if we knew how to deal with it yet. We had a great regular season, but I don't know if we were built for the playoffs or understood the wow factor of the playoffs."

And that's the difference between then and now. Between Poile's deadline deals and Radulov's return, the Predators finally have a team that doesn't just want to compete, but can compete.

It's almost fitting that the Detroit Red Wings are standing in the way of Nashville. The team that the Predators have modeled themselves after since their inception. The team that has knocked the Predators out of the playoffs twice already. The team with 19 division championships, 6 conference championships and 19 Stanley Cups.

If the Predators finally want to break through and become one of the top teams in the NHL -- competing for a Cup year in and year out -- they will have to do so at the expense of the Red Wings, who it appears Nashville is finally ready to compete with.

Yes, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter could walk this offseason should the Preds have an early exit from the playoffs. Radulov could leave as well, whether that's to Russia or another NHL team. The core that Poile has assembled for this run, right now, might not be in gold in five months.

But that's for the summer to worry about. Right now, the Predators have a job to do.

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