Predators Look to Break Through for Deep Playoff Run Before Shea Weber and Co. Hit Free Agency

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Predators Look to Break Through for Deep Playoff Run Before Shea Weber and Co. Hit Free Agency The Predators finally broke through last season and won the first playoff series in franchise history.

Prior to last spring's opening-round triumph against Anaheim, Nashville had been eliminated in the first round in its first five playoff appearances, and failed to qualify for the postseason in the other six seasons since joining the NHL in 1998. The Predators fell to eventual Western Conference champion Vancouver in the second round, but will be looking to go even deeper this year. The pressure is on, though. Not only is the fan base desperate for a legitimate run at a Cup, but the window to win one could be closing soon with Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne all poised to hit free agency next summer.

2010-11 Record: 44-27-11, 99 points (2nd Central Division; 5th Western Conference; beat Anaheim 4-2 in first round, lost to Vancouver 4-2 in second round of playoffs)

Bruins record vs. Predators: Boston leads the all-time series 8-4-1-3, but lost the only meeting last season 4-3 in overtime when Weber scored in the extra session in a St. Patrick's Day clash in Nashville.

When to watch: The Bruins host the Predators in the clubs' only meeting this year on Saturday, Feb. 11.

Familiar faces: Forward Colin Wilson, the seventh overall pick in 2008, hails from Greenwich, Conn., and played at Boston University before turning pro. Center Joonas Rask, Nashville's seventh-round pick in 2010, is the younger brother of Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.

Key additions: F Niclas Bergfors (free agent); D Tyler Sloan (free agent); F Zack Stortini (free agent); F Kyle Wilson (free agent); D Jack Hillen (free agent); F Robert Slaney (trade with Toronto); F Brodie Dupont (trade with NY Rangers)

Key losses: F Matthew Lombardi (traded to Toronto); D Cody Franson (traded to Toronto); F J.P. Dumont (bought out); D Brett Lebda (bought out); F Joel Ward (signed with Washington); F Steve Sullivan (signed with Pittsburgh); D Shane O'Brien (signed with Colorado); F Andreas Thuresson (traded to NY Rangers); F Marcel Goc (signed with Florida)

Burning question: Will this be the final season for the Predators' core stars?

Weber was awarded $7.5 million for one year after the Predators took him to arbitration, but they'll have to sign him again next summer when fellow defenseman Suter and goalie Rinne will also be headed to free agency. Those three are by far Nashville's most important players, but will they be able to retain all three? The Predators should have the cap space to do so, though Weber's huge score in arbitration could complicate that. A bigger issue might be the small-market Predators' ability to spend to the cap the keep all three. If they can't, then this year could be their final chance to break through for a deep playoff run.

2011-12 outlook: The Predators gave up promising young defenseman Franson as part of a salary dump to shed Lombardi's contract and give Nashville some financial flexibility to deal with Weber and Co. But even without Franson, the Predators boast a deep and talented blue line, at least as long as Norris finalist Weber (16-32-48 last year) and Suter (4-35-39) are in town. Rinne has been a rock behind them, putting together a stellar season of his own last year (33-22-9, 2.12 GAA, .930 save percentage). They lack a true elite playmaker up front, but Sergei Kostitsyn did thrive away from Montreal (team-leading 23-37-50 last year), while Martin Erat (17-33-50), Patric Hornqvist (21-27-48) and Wilson (16-18-34) supply a solid supporting cast. Nashville will also have a full season of trade deadline pickup Mike Fisher (19-17-36 in 82 games split between Ottawa and Nashville). 

Did you know? Hockey might not have a long tradition in Nashville, but the game is definitely in the blood of many of the Predators. In addition to having Tuukka's little brother Joonas in the system, the Predators also feature Kostitsyn, brother of Montreal forward Andrei Kostitsyn, and Suter, nephew of Gary Suter, who spent 17 years in the NHL. Wilson is also the son of Carey Wilson, who played 12 years in the league, and grandson of Gerry Wilson, who played briefly for Montreal. The greatest multi-generational ties belong to Blake Geoffrion, a former Hobey Baker winner at Wisconsin who made his NHL debut last season. He's the grandson of hockey legend Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion and the great-grandson of another Hall of Famer, Howie Morenz. Geoffrion's father, Dan, was also a first-round pick of the Canadiens and played three seasons in the NHL.

With the bulk of the offseason moves complete and the start of another NHL season inching closer, NESN.com Bruins beat writer Douglas Flynn will be previewing one team from each conference every day through August 26.

Sunday, August 14: New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings

Tuesday, August 16: Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues

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