The Western Conference playoff picture is beginning to take shape.
Led by Tomas Holmstrom's two goals, the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday, clinching their 21st consecutive postseason berth—the longest current streak in U.S. professional sports.
Soon to follow the Wings in sealing a spot among the top eight in the Western Conference are the Nashville Predators, who are in the midst of their best season in franchise history. With the future of Ryan Suter on the line, the Preds have a lot of pressure to make a big run this year and convince the superstar defenseman to re-sign this summer.
While playoff seeding has yet to be firmly determined, it's a near certainty that Detroit and Nashville will face off in the opening round. This would mark the third time these two teams have met in the postseason; the Wings having won both times thus far, each in six games.
“It looks to me we’re playing Nashville in the first round,” Mike Babcock said. “Two really good teams, not much to pick between us, so it’s going to be a battle.”
Detroit is currently in fourth place in the West (97 points), while Nashville is in fifth and trailing by a single point (96). As of Wednesday, the Wings have one game in hand on the Preds.
With division leader St. Louis high above the pack, it will be virtually impossible for anyone to dethrone them in the pending weeks. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Blackhawks could rise a spot or two with 93 points, but according to SportsClubStats.com, there only remains a nine percent chance for them to do so.
With the matchup between the Wings and Predators likely on the horizon, there remains one matter to be sorted: home-ice advantage—an issue that could make all the difference.
The Red Wings are nearly unbeatable in the comfortable confines of Joe Louis Arena, where they have a 30-5-2 record this year and had previously won 23 in a row, an NHL record. However, if the Predators do find a way to leapfrog Detroit, their odds of defeating their Central Division rival in a best-of-seven series skyrockets.
The Wings, despite their well-documented success at The Joe, have struggled quite a bit on the road—a deficiency that hasn't received the attention it truly deserves.
Babcock's team has won only 16 of 39 away games thus far in 2011-12, making their incredible home success a vital quality. It's worth mentioning that no team has won the Stanley Cup with a losing record on the road in the regular season since the New Jersey Devils pulled it off in the shortened 1994-95 campaign.
In head-to-head battle, Detroit holds a 2-0 advantage over Nashville at home this season, but have lost two of three to the Preds at Bridgestone Arena.
The two will finish their regular season series on Friday in Detroit.
Andrew Hirsh is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh