If I told you six months ago that one of these teams struggle on the road, has one of the worst penalty kills in the league and won’t have home-ice advantage in the playoffs, there’s no question we’d all have said Nashville.
We’d all be wrong.
At the beginning of the season, most Predator fans would have been happy with making the playoffs and possibly getting to the second round. Finishing with the third-best record in the conference and starting with home ice shows how far this organization has come. Nashville is now a very real threat to make the Finals.
Everyone knew they were big and Pekka Rinne could steal a game. With the addition of Andrei Kostitsyn, Alex Radulov and the league’s best power-play unit, they’re giving Rinne leads to play with.
Detroit went in the exact opposite direction. After setting the record for consecutive wins on home ice, Wings fans had dreams of the Presidents' Trophy dancing in their heads and were ready to buy their Stanley Cup Finals tickets. Then the injury bug bit. Again.
With stalwarts Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom, Johan Franzen and a bevy of other players getting nicked, the Wings were forced to mix and match lines for most of the second half. Given that they won two road games in the final two months of the season, this team hardly resembles the one back in October. For the first time in years, Detroit is the underdog.
Here’s how the series breaks down:
Is Pavel Datsyuk healthy enough to be Pavel Datsyuk?
Every season we hear about Detroit’s depth and how they boast two of the most talented lines in hockey. We keep hearing about it because it’s true. When healthy, Hank Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen and company can play just about any style a team wants, and beat them at it.
Ah, but there is the caveat: “When healthy.” While the team is shaking off the rust of an injury-riddled second half, how close to 100 percent are they? Datsyuk still doesn’t look right, even if he is shedding defenders while dishing passes. Darren Helm is expected back for Game 2, but will his balky knee affect his speed?
At the top of their game, this team is a nightmare no matter where they are slotted. Come Wednesday night, we’ll find out how close to healthy they really are.
Nashville has never been known for offense. Their game is predicated on defense and goaltending. When they added Andrei Kostitsyn at the trade deadline, the Predators looked a little more dangerous up front, but certainly not world beaters. Then the prodigal son returned.
The NHL allowed Alexander Radulov to return to Nashville and play out the rest of his contract. His seven points in nine games shows that his is ahead of the curve readjusting to the NHL, and his game is more complete now than it was when he left.
Even with the two huge additions easing the scoring burden on Mike Fisher, Marty Erat and Partric Hornqvist, Nashville’s top six forwards just aren’t as imposing as Detroit’s. Add in the Stanley Cup experience and playoff know-how, and this is a no contest.
Zetterberg and Datsyuk can expect to see a lot of these two.
Last season, Detroit was among the worst in goal differential heading into the playoffs. What a difference a year makes.
After losing Brian Rafalski, the Wings didn’t skip a beat. They resisted bringing in a big name to fill out their blue line, instead opting for Ian White and promoting Jakub Kindl. While there have been some growing pains along the way, Detroit is fifth-best in goal differential and looking solid along the back end.
Questions do exist, however. Coming back from injury, will Jonathan Ericsson continue his solid play? He will be the X-factor on the blue line. Can the Wings D withstand Nashville’s physical play? Brad Stuart and Nicklas Kronwall will have to pick up their hitting and keep the few snipers the Preds have from getting to the scoring areas.
Nashville’s defensive corps features two players whom Detroit will show plenty of interest in the coming offseason. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter headline the Predators' big, physical blueliners. While these two get most of the press, Nashville is solid all the way down. Deadline pickup Hal Gill has both size and experience, adding much needed depth.
Can the Predators' size and strength on the blue line keep Detroit’s skill players to the outside? They’ve done a good job recently, holding the Red Wings to five goals in their last three meetings.
While Detroit boasts the best defender of this generation in Nicklas Lidstrom, and a couple of heavy hitters in Stuart and Kronwall, playoff games often come down to exploiting matchups. How much Kindl and Ericsson play and whom they are paired with will be a very telling sign of just how much Coach Babcock trusts them.
Nashville’s bottom three defensemen don’t have nearly as much doubt surrounding them. Add in the home-ice advantage and that Nashville will control matchups in four of these games, and they win by the slightest of margins.
At 6'5", is there any net left to shoot at?
Detroit’s Jimmy Howard had a stellar first half. He was among the league leaders with 33 wins at the All-Star break and was selected to play in the All-Star Game in Ottawa. His 1.90 GAA and .929 save percentage were among the best in the league. Then he broke a finger, forcing him to miss three weeks. He returned for a short stint before pulling a groin muscle, forcing him out again. His inability to stay in the lineup and get back in a groove saw him go 4-6-3 with a 2.45 GAA in the second half of the season.
Now that Howard is presumably healthy, which goaltender will show up? He had a decent four games to close out the season, in which he went 2-1-1 with a 1.66 GAA. If the offense gets clogged up like it has a tendency to against Nashville, Howard will need to step up and keep the game close, perhaps even steal a game or two.
There’s not much to say about Pekka Rinne that hasn’t already been said. He’s huge standing at 6’5”, and very athletic. He is the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina Trophy, and he finished fourth in last season’s MVP race. As Rinne goes, so go the Predators. Even with the recent upgrades up front, this is not a team that will overwhelm anyone with offensive firepower. Nashville was built from the goal crease out.
The one concern coming out of the Nashville crease is the workload Rinne endured during the regular season. In order to win his league-leading 43 games, Rinne started 72. Fatigue could become a factor if games go to overtime in the series.
The injury concerns regarding Howard are very real, and groin injuries have a tendency to stick around for a while. Rinne’s fatigue is merely speculation, until some cracks start to reveal themselves.
With names like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen and Lidstrom, one would expect at the very least a top 10 power-play unit. The reality, however, is that the Wings finished with the league’s 22nd-rated unit. Injuries haven’t helped the numbers either, but the team has been stagnant as of late, going 1-13 in the last five games.
Several theories and potential fixes have been thrown around, but I’d like to think of Mike Babcock as a rather intelligent hockey mind. There are few theories we as armchair coaches can come up with that he hasn’t already considered. It simply comes down to execution. Going up against a team with a top 10 penalty kill offers little help. Simply put, the Wings will need better output from the power play if they expect to win this series.
While the penalty kill hasn’t been bad, it isn’t what Coach Babcock would like. Players like Drew Miller and Justin Abdelkader have shown promise on the PK, but missing key penalty killers like Darren Helm and Danny Cleary hurt the Wings during the regular season. Cleary is slated to return Wednesday, and Helm could potentially return as well, but with both recovering from knee injuries, how effective will they be?
Despite their historically low offensive output and names that certainly aren’t of the household variety, Nashville has the NHL’s best power-play unit. Having a certain blueliner who can fire pucks over 100 mph will certainly help. The Predators' power play centers around Shea Weber, and for good reason. Even if he isn’t getting his shot off, the other team pays so much attention to it that ice opens up for someone else.
This is also where the additions of Andrei Kostitsyn and Alex Radulov become the most apparent. A sniper and a playmaker with ice to work with are always a dangerous combination. Add in Detroit’s middle-of-the-road penalty kill, and pucks will end up behind Howard if the Wings can’t stay out of the box.
Nashville turned in the league’s 10th best penalty-kill unit. With names like Mike Fisher, Jordin Tootoo and Ryan Suter, that was to be expected. Add in the likes of Paul Gausted and Hal Gill, and the PK unit just got a lot deeper. Even if Detroit wasn’t having issues with their power play, they were going to have a hard time figuring out that four-man unit. Let’s not forget the big guy in the crease either.
This is about as close to a smile as you'll get from Babcock.
In today’s “What have you done for me lately” climate, coaches last little more than five years in any one stop. Nashville’s Barry Trotz has been there since day one, making him the second-longest tenured coach in the NHL. That, in and of itself, is impressive. Add to it that he is only the 10th coach to be behind the bench for 750 games for the same team, and recently picked up his 500th win, and you’ll find he has accumulated some impressive numbers flying that far under the hockey radar.
While he is the only name in the Nashville record books filed under “coach,” he has yet to guide his team to any significant success in the playoffs. Making the playoffs six of the last seven years is nice, and finally making it to the second round last season was a big step, but expectations are high this year. Making it to the finals not only validates hockey in the South, but it might just make it easier to keep both Shea Weber and Ryan Suter around after this summer.
For all Trotz has done with Nashville, Babcock is the preeminent name in coaching. He has taken the Wings to the playoffs six straight times, sustaining their streak of 21 straight seasons, and won the Cup in 2008. He was also selected to coach Team Canada in the 2010 Olympics, winning the gold medal.
Trotz deserves his fair share of respect and accolades, but until proven otherwise, Babcock is the man. You know what they say: If you want to be the man, you gotta beat the man.
Zetterberg is going to need a lot more help in order to move on.
All in all, Nashville is the type of team that drives the Red Wings crazy: fast, physical and opportunistic with a goaltender who can steal the series. If the Wings were healthy, it would be easy to pick them. Question marks up and down that bench, however, change everything.
Nashville is a very confident team coming into this series. They won the season series 4-2, including a sound 4-1 victory in Joe Louis Arena in the last regular-season meeting. Add in the home-ice advantage and Detroit’s road woes all season, and Nashville moves on.
Prediction: Nashville in six