With the regular season wrapped up, and Nashville now planning for a best-of-seven series against Anaheim, the real hockey is set to begin.
The regular season could easily be compared to a handful of study sessions and pop quizzes, with teams facing trials and tribulations along the way - all the while pining for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Well, the Predators are in and their first major test is approaching.
Can they escape their first round matchup against the Ducks?
The biggest question being asked was whether or not fans would want to see Los Angeles or Anaheim in the first round. Each posed a unique set of risks in what you'd like to see for an opponent. In the end, the matchups don't really matter.
Why does the opponent not matter? Think of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs as the first round of March Madness.
Anything can happen and it always does during the pinnacle of hockey championships.
The opening round is the most difficult round of the playoffs, by far. Nashville's faced some very winnable playoff matchups in their history and were sent packing earlier than they should have. Two of those came against San Jose in back-to-back years.
They've also faced teams where they easily could have lost a series. Remember that first playoff series win over the aforementioned Ducks? Yeah, Nashville was 35.3 seconds away from heading back to Bridgestone Arena trailing three games to two instead of the opposite. That brings us to puck luck, though.
Boy, the Predators have been on the wrong side of history for bad bounces. Here, let's take a trip down memory lane.
2008 vs Detroit, game six - Nicklas Lidstrom
2010 at Chicago, game five - Patrick Kane
2010 at Chicago, game five - Marian Hossa
2010 vs Chicago, game six - Patrick Kane
2011 vs Vancouver, game three - Ryan Kesler
And pretty much every overtime goal of last year's series against Chicago.
Rewinding back five years, though, Nashville had an exceptional amount of luck against Anaheim including some key goals by Nick Spaling in game six to seal the deal.
That's how it goes. Sometimes the puck bounces in your favor and sometimes it doesn't. Granted, Nashville's going to have a hell of a time taking out the Ducks in the first round this season as this years version of that team has much more upside than the last time the Predators faced off against them in the playoffs.
THE FIVE POINTS - Five stories intersecting the NHL (Playoff Preview Edition!)
Can Snider's memory push the Flyers onward? - On paper, this series doesn't really look like much of a threat for the Capitals, as one would believe. The Flyers, however, have a whole helping of emotional support behind them now.
With the passing of chairman and founder Ed Snider on Monday, Philadelphia has more to play for than just pride. It has a chance to play for the memory of its now-deceased owner and the ability to shock the hockey world by taking down one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
The biggest question, though, is can the Flyers muster enough offense and stellar goaltending to pull off such a feat? I don't think so. As much as they'll have the emotional side of the game in their favor, it won't be enough to take down Washington.
Capitals in six games.
The Magic Man conjuring one last spell - Here's another series that has emotional ramifications to it, albeit not due to the death of an individual surrounding the organization.
This time it's the retirement of Pavel Datsyuk from the NHL at the conclusion of Detroit's season, whenever that may be.
Datsyuk has been one of the most entertaining players to watch in the NHL, one that continues to shock and awe with nearly every goal he scores. While his play will most certainly be missed in the league, opponents won't miss having to play against him.
Combine the departure of Datsyuk along with Tampa Bay's slew of injuries - Steven Stamkos (out one to three months), Anton Stralman (out indefinitely), Victor Hedman (day-to-day), Ryan Callahan (day-to-day), and now potentially Tyler Johnson (day-to-day) - you have the workings of a potential upset in the mix.
And that's exactly what I think will happen.
Detroit in seven games.
SoCal California, part one? - This isn't the first time these two teams have squared off in the playoffs and it for sure won't be the last time, either.
Interestingly enough, San Jose poses a threat to the hopes of the Kings - one that should put enough pressure on Los Angeles in its attempts to leave the first round unscathed. While the Kings are one of the best playoff teams around, the Sharks have enough in their lineup to make sure that LA has its hands full.
My biggest concern, though, is whether San Jose's goaltending will be enough to move past the first round. The Sharks can score, there's no question about that, but will they be able to defend and hold the puck against a Kings team that can do all three with ease?
I don't think it will be enough. I don't think that Martin Jones or James Reimer will be the answer for San Jose.
Los Angeles in five games.
Surviving the onslaught - Where to begin with this series?
Dallas has all the makings of a team that can push for its first trip back to the Stanley Cup Finals since an overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils and Jason Arnott back in 2000. Offensively, they're stellar - even without Tyler Seguin. Defensively, there are some question marks. Goaltending? Question marks too, but Antti Niemi has pulled off a Stanley Cup win with a heavy team in front of him before.
On the flip side, Minnesota is...well, its...it's kind of hard to really analyze a team like the Wild who, for all intents and purposes, should be in the playoffs as much as Colorado should be (and they aren't).
After firing head coach Mike Yeo midway through the season, Minnesota had a burst of fresh new energy, but stumbled near the finish line. Goaltending has been the biggest savior for the Wild, as Devan Dubnyk continues to prove his critics wrong and post fantastic numbers for Minnesota.
The biggest question for the Wild, though? Will Zach Parise be healthy enough to start the series and make an impact against Dallas?
He was held out of Minnesota's season finale against Calgary on Saturday night, but even with a healthy Parise I'm not sure if it'll be enough to even make a dent into the Stars and their path towards a second Stanley Cup.
Dallas in five games.
"From Hell's heart, I stab at thee" - I absolutely love watching these two teams tear each other apart in the playoffs.
If you don't enjoy watching such a storied rivalry between Chicago and St. Louis, then you clearly don't love watching hockey and should be rightfully booed because of it.
Over the last month, St. Louis quietly became a team that should scare plenty of other teams in the playoffs if they haven't been paying attention. The Blues nearly won the Central Division over the Stars and are defensively one of the most teams in the league. They also have phenomenal special teams play, ranking in the top ten for both power play and penalty kill percentages.
Can they keep up with Chicago's firepower? That's the biggest concern, in my opinion. The Blackhawks clearly have the firepower to turn a series around and, should Corey Crawford truly be at 100 percent for the first round, could benefit from some timely goaltending as well.
If St. Louis can split the first two games in Chicago, which is possible with Duncan Keith finishing up his suspension in game one, it could do enough damage to swing the series in its favor.
As much as the Blackhawks are playoff beasts, much like the Kings, I think the Blues may actually have the upper hand here.
St. Louis in seven games.
The Final Word
It's interesting to look at Nashville's pipeline and really get a sense of how secure the team is in its future.
The Predators have always worried about developing scorers that they've focused the majority of their time and efforts into continually re-filling the cupboard full of defensive and goaltending prospects. It's been that way throughout franchise history. Nashville has never truly drafted and developed a real scoring threat.
To be fair to the organization, they've never been in the position to be able to draft a player of that level of talent, either. Which can be a fairly good thing, meaning they've been quite successful over the course of the regular season - unfortunately not directly translating into playoff success.
Can you count Craig Smith? Not really. He's going to be a great 20/20 player for Nashville through his career, but he's not an elite-level talent.
David Legwand? Not an elite threat. Neither was Martin Erat, nor Scott Hartnell, Scottie Upshall, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling or Colin Wilson.
And neither was Alex Radulov. He sure had the potential to be a great player in the NHL, but Mother Russia called his name.
Jimmy Vesey has that potential too, but that ship has sailed for Nashville and he'll be a great talent elsewhere.
So what about the current crop of forwards? They brought home a division title to Milwaukee and have the team on the cusp of being the best in the AHL's Western Conference, both firsts since 2011.
The seemingly problematic Kevin Fiala laeads the Admirals in points with 48 (18 goals, 30 assists) while rookie Max Görtz, a 23 year old rookie out of Sweden and sixth-round pick of the Predators back in 2012, has come alive with 46 points (17 goals, 29 assists).
Frederick Gaudreau, Milwaukee's top center, has posted 42 points in 72 games (15 goals, 27 assists), Pontus Åberg already has a 24-goal campaign and 2014 draft pick Vladislav Kamenev has an impressive 35-point performance.
This doesn't even count the impact that Anthony Richard and, potentially, Justin Kirkland will have on Milwaukee. Then you look at adding in players like Yakov Trenin and maybe evening a Tyler Moy in the years to come.
It's the most promising that Nashville's offensive future has looked in...well...ever. That says a lot, too.
Defensively, they're sound. Taylor Aronson and Trevor Murphy already have had fantastic seasons in the AHL this year while Jack Dougherty and Alexandre Carrier have looked great in juniors, with Dougherty now joining the Admirals on their quest for the Calder Cup.
Juuse Saros will be Pekka Rinne's heir-apparent, posting 27 wins already and named to the AHL's All-Rookie team.
If you don't have reason to be excited about the young players that will be fighting to join Nashville's roster in the next few years, then you obviously haven't been paying attention. The Predators already have a slew of talent on board for the next few years and, with some timely expiring contracts this year and next, will finally be able to showcase some of this younger talent.