Pred alert!

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

NASHVILLE -- Music City hockey fans surely hope it's not a sign of things to come.

Last time the Nashville Predators were in action, their inflatable mascot went for a crash landing.

The pseudo-dirigible, a sabre-toothed tiger, normally drops prizes during the intermissions but after two-thirds of the Predators' 3-1 loss to Dallas Saturday, the whole cat came down.

Could it be an omen?

Possibly but not likely.

Some may be surprised to see the Predators in the upper echelon of the NHL -- fourth in the Western Conference as of this morning -- but it's not a big shock to anyone on the team.

Especially those who have been in Tennessee for years, such as left winger Scott Hartnell.

"We knew we had a good team and knew we could do well," said Hartnell, now in his fifth season with the Preds. "We didn't play real well in the pre-season but coming to the rink for the first game, you could feel everybody was ready to do something special.

"It's been awesome. Ever since the season started, going 8-0, it's been really good. We've been playing really solid. It's been so much fun."

Thanks to that start, by far the best in the franchise's seven-season history, the Predators are finding their niche in a city better known as the home of the Grand Ole Opry and the Tennessee Titans.

Hartnell, who saw his share of tough times during his first few seasons after being chosen sixth overall in the 2000 draft, is thrilled about the excitement his team has generated

"The buzz around the city is really something to see," said the product of Lloydminster. "Down here in the south, you grow up with football, so the Titans are a big deal. But they're not having a very good year and we've started well, really well at home, so it's been exciting to see the reaction."

For good reason.

Heading into tonight's clash with the Flames, the Predators have claimed 10 of 12 home dates, a key to their 14-4-3 mark.

Hartnell, who's collected five goals in the last eight games and has 15 points on the season (8-7-15), has no trouble pointing out three keys.

Among them is the experience gained by players during the 2003-04 season, when Nashville reached the playoffs for the first time. The lockout played a part, too.

"A lot of guys went to Europe and took their games to another level," Hartnell said. "With me, it was a really good chance to pick up some different parts of my game."

The 23-year-old led Valerengen to the Norwegian league title with 12 goals and 19 points in 11 playoff games.

Adding Paul Kariya also helped. The slick skater has regained his touch after a few off-seasons, going at nearly a point-per-game pace since joining the team as an unrestricted free agent in the summer.

"I've never played with a superstar of that level," said Hartnell.

"Just watching him work every day is amazing. It gets everybody to work to a new level."

Not to be forgotten, though, is the play of netminder Tomas Vokoun.

Despite having a team that surrenders more than 32 shots per game on average, Vokoun has maintained his standing among the league's top netminders, in wins and save percentage.

"He's played great every time he's been in the net. He makes saves all the time that you'd think are impossible," Harnell said. "I don't think he gets the attention and the credit he deserves."


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