During February, the Detroit Red Wings stood atop the league and looked poised to make a serious run for the Stanley Cup. They were riding an NHL-record 23-game home winning streak. Several players were having career years, and all seemed to be going great.
Then March hit and the injuries started to take control of the team. Ten players missed games during the month, and the team’s record fell apart as they only won three of 13 games for the month. This dropped them all the way down to fifth in the Western Conference.
Darren Helm is now the only missing regular player from the lineup, but he will be back by the weekend and possibly sooner. The team was able to get the rest of their injured players back by the end of the season, giving them a few games to shake the rust off.
Since the rash of injuries, fans and pundits have started to discount the team. They do not feel that they can get past Nashville. While Nashville is a good team, they are not the almighty unstoppable beast that people have made them out to be lately.
Here is why the Predators are not as invincible as some believe and why the Wings will win in six games.
The Nashville Predators have improved their offense this season. They went from 22nd in scoring last season all the way up to ninth this year. Their goals per game jumped to 2.79 from 2.56. They have ten players who scored double-digits goals this season but only two that topped 20 goals.
The Wings boast 11 such players in double digits. Four hit the 20-goal mark, and if not for missing 12 games, Pavel Datsyuk would have had more than 19. Despite the rash of injuries, the Wings still finished with more goals then Predators.
During the playoffs, goals are harder to come by. With the Wings not only having a deeper scoring bench but also more players capable of being go-to guys, they will be able to withstand the inevitable ups and downs of the playoffs. The Predators will not be able to spread their defense around enough to cover all of the Red Wings' scorers.
The Predators might have the best defensive one-two pairing in the league with Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. As good as they are, though, the Red Wings go five deep in a very solid defensive corp of their own..
Just like on the offensive side, the deeper Red Wings will be able to spread out and cover more of the Predators' scorers. Which Red Wings' line do Weber and Suter play against? Even if they can contain one of the Wings' lines, that still leaves several other scorers open and ready to step up.
Despite having Jimmy Howard, Nicklas Lidstrom and Jonathan Ericsson miss over 30 combined games, the Red Wings still finished ahead of the Predators in goals allowed this season. The Red Wings are better on defense than many give them credit for.
Beyond the defensive play, the Wings' defense is also one of the highest scoring in the league. Being able to stop other teams while also being able to chip in on offense is a big benefit to the team.
Pekka Rinne is the superstar name in this matchup. He should be a finalist for the Vezina trophy again this year.
He led the league in wins this year with 43 and posted 2.39 goals against average. Many will point out that he also had the most saves this year. While that's true, he also faced the most shots.
Jimmy Howard is no slouch in net. Until he broke his finger and also sat out twice due to a groin injury, he was the league leader in wins. He was also among the league leaders in goals against average. Once back in the lineup and healthy, he finished the season on a roll with 1.92 goals against and a .927 save percentage.
Howard ended the season with a 2.12 goals against, well ahead of Rinne. Howard also had more shutouts while playing in 15 fewer games. While Rinne does have an edge in save percentage, the .923 to .920 difference is to close too bother with.
What does it mean? While Rinne is very good and the key to Nashville’s playoff hopes, Detroit can match him with Jimmy Howard.
At the trade deadline Nashville added several players. They were able to bring in Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad. They also had Alexander Radulov return from the KHL. Despite these moves, their goals against did not see a bump.
They also only went 7-6 down the stretch. Even that is inflated as they finished on a three-game win streak while beating two teams that were out of contention and just playing out their games. The trades seem to have rocked the team’s chemistry.
Most of the Red Wings' key players have been together for years. The only adjustment lately has been getting their injured players back up to speed. More so than other sports, hockey seems to require a few games for players to not only get their games legs back but also to blend back into the system.
The time off between the end of the season and the start of the playoffs is good for the Wings. They will be able to fully get everyone up to speed and on the same page. The nagging injuries have a few days to heal, and they will be ready to go.
No doubt that the Predators own the advantage here. Their power play is tops in the league while their penalty kill in 10th.
The Red Wings have been uncharacteristically off this year in both of these departments. They are tied for 17th in penalty kill and 22nd in the power play. While some of this can be attributed to the injuries, they are still lower than they should be.
This is not as big of a deal as people fear, though. For starters, the Red Wings are the best in the Western Conference at five-on-five. Most of the game is played this way.
Come playoff time, the refs tend to swallow their whistles. Fewer penalties being called means the Predators will not only have fewer chances to exploit their advantage but they will be forced to play more full strength, which plays to the Wings' advantage.
Yes, it is an advantage for the Predators, but if they do not have the opportunity to use it, then it really does not matter. The Wings are one of the least penalized teams in the league. This means that they are smart enough not to play into the Predators' biggest advantage over them.
Nashville is in new territory. Last season they finally ended the franchise's winless playoff streak. This year they enter with home ice over Detroit.
While that is an advantage, it also comes with a lot of added pressure. For a team that is not used to such expectations, will they be able to handle it?
There is also the added pressure of "now or never" for the Predators. While many teams that have grown as the Predators have can look ahead to more years together, that may not be the case in Nashville. They have 14 players that will be some level of free agent after this season.
Key players such as Ryan Suter, Shea Weber and Sergei Kostityn, as well as recent acquisitions Hal Gill, Andrei Kostityn, Paul Gaustad and Alexander Radulov, are each looking at some type of free agency in the offseason. While every player wants to win now, the pressure and desperateness increases when the window for "now" may be so small for the team.
Detroit is a battle-tested team. They have a history of falling to a lower-seeded team with a hot goalie. The Red Wings can be that team this year.
They obviously have more talent than their fifth seed shows. They have a goalie that is entering the playoffs playing very well and a team that is healthy.
Much has been made of the road record of the Wings. Although not great, they were above .500 at the end of February before the injuries hit. They only need to win one on the road in order to take the series. They should get that in Game 1.
While this will not be an easy series, rest easy, Hockeytown faithful—the Red Wings will be moving on.
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