By Ron Wynn
Ever since their inaugural year in the National Hockey League, the Predators have enjoyed a special rivalry with the Detroit Red Wings. It became even hotter when these teams faced each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But things are different from their other two series’ with Detroit, both of which ended in defeats.
In the series that opened Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena, it is the Predators, rather than the Red Wings, who have the home ice advantage. Though they don’t have any single player in any elite offensive category, the Predators scored only seven fewer goals than Detroit (239-232).
The Red Wings were seventh in the NHL in goals allowed and the Predators eighth (200-205). Perhaps most importantly, the Predators had a much better road record than the Red Wings. They were 22-16-3, while Detroit was only 17- 21-3. The Red Wings set a league record this season with a 23-game home winning streak. The Predators can’t compare with that, but were 26-10-5 at Bridgestone Arena. Only a curious three-game home loss stint (in regulation) over the season’s last three months kept the Predators from having an even better mark. The teams split six regular season games, with each team winning two of three at home. Neither scored more than four goals against the other in any game.
Leading the way for the Red Wings is Henrik Zetterberg, though he only had 69 points this season. Nashville had five forwards with at least 40 points. Patric Horqvist led the Predators with 27 goals. The other player to watch offensively for Detroit is Pavel Datsyuk. The Predators’ got a huge boost from the return of Alexander Radulov. He played nine games and provided them with another explosive skater, shooter and scorer. How his role evolves will be a key factor during the series.
The Predators can boast an advantage over the Red Wings on the defensive end. Shea Weber had 19 goals. He tied with Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson for the lead among defensemen. Ryan Suter had his best offensive season (46 points). The Predators led the NHL in power play effectiveness, scoring 21.6 percent of the time. They were 10th in penalty killing at 83.6 percent. The Red Wings were only 22nd in power play efficiency, scoring 22 percent of the time, a figure that is vastly substandard by past Red Wings markers. They were 18th in penalty killing at 81.8 percent.
The Predators’ Pekka Rinne is arguably the NHL’s best goalie. He led the league in wins with 43, and had .923 save percentage to go with a 2.39 goals against average. He had only eight losses after January 1. His Red Wings counterpart Jimmy Howard has been hurt the last two months by injuries. However he finished with 35 wins, and a 2.13 goals against average. But what should concern Predators’ fans is whether coach Barry Trotz overused Rinne during the regular season. He played in 73 games, a career high. No doubt the Predators will go as far as Rinne can take them, and they limited his practice time last week to get him ready.
Barry Trotz is the only coach in the Predators’ history. Most seasons they have gone into the playoffs as a decided underdog due to offensive or defensive liabilities. But Trotz will be judged differently in the 2012 playoffs because no one questions the Predators’ talent or depth. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has coached in three Stanley Cup Finals, and the Red Wings won in 2008. He was also coach of Canada’s gold medal winning 2010 Olympic team. The knock on Babcock, if there is one, is that he’s always had ample talent and never had to scrap and claw with an overmatched unit.
After last year’s historic run, the Predators have enjoyed more recognition and success than ever. They set a record for regular season sellouts, and expect to fill the arena for every home playoff game. Whether they’ve taken that step from pretender to contender will be evident after the first four games of this series. They play the Red Wings at home again on Friday, then the series shifts to Detroit Sunday.