First round series breakdown: Predators (4) vs. Red Wings (5)
The two clubs are close in talent, but special teams play favors the Predators
Detroit's Johan Franzen must provide scoring against the defensively stout Preds
Nashville aspires to Detroit's standard, this series offers them another big step
Regular season series: split 3-3
Nov. 26: Predators 1 at Red Wings 4
Dec. 15: Red Wings 3 at Predators 4
Dec. 26: Red Wings 4 at Predators 1
Feb. 17: Predators 1 at Red Wings 2
Mar. 10: Red Wings 2 at Predators 3
Mar. 30: Predators 4 at Red Wings 1
Key injuries: Detroit -- RW Dan Cleary (knee, expected to play), C Darren Helm (arm tendon surgery, out for playoffs), RW Patrick Eaves (concussion, out for season); Nashville -- G Anders Lindback (upper body, day-to-day), D Hal Gill (lower body, day to day)
Snapshot: The Predators hope the third time is the charm when facing the Red Wings in the playoffs. They lost in six in 2004 and 2008, but this is the first time that Nashville begins the series on home ice. These Central Division rivals finished just two points apart in the standings and, in fact, were so close that the Red Wings scored just 11 more goals than the Preds and surrendered a mere eight fewer, although Nashville won their last two meetings including, a convincing 4-1 win in Detroit on March 30.
More telling are the differences, most notably on special teams. The Predators led the league in power play efficiency at 21.6 percent, while the Red Wings struggled as a third tier man-advantage outfit, ranking 22nd at 16.1 percent. The penalty-kill also favors the Preds who finished 10th (83.6), making them one of only three teams in the top 10 in both special teams categories. (The Canucks and Penguins were the others.) Detroit's PK proficiency finished at 81.8, but it did improve markedly down the stretch, as the Wings didn't yield a power play goal-against in their last seven games.
Another major difference is that the Wings added only depth defenseman Kyle Quincey at the trade deadline, while the Preds altered their look more than any playoff-bound team. GM David Poile added size on the blueline with Hal Gill and up front with centerman Paul Gaustad coming over from the Buffalo Sabres. Both bolstered an already sound penalty-killing group -- Gill with his shot-blocking and Gaustad as a top face-off man. Poile also brought in skill up front in Andrei Kostitsyn from Montreal and prodigal son Alexander Radulov -- back after defecting to the KHL in 2008. In contrast, the Red Wings may be transitioning to more and more younger players while the Predators are at a point where they feel they can finally, truly contend for the big prize.
And why not? This is the Predators' deepest, most talented and well-rounded collection ever. Pekka Rinne led all goaltenders in wins (43), and Shea Weber and Ryan Suter form the game's best 1-2 punch from the blueline. Mike Fisher epitomizes the Predators' solid two-way approach: honest, 200-foot hockey. Overall, they match-up better physically than the more well-known and decorated Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg. In goal, Detroit's All-Star, Jimmy Howard, was the best goalie in the game through the midseason break, but battled various injuries for 6-8 weeks afterwards. While he was out, Rinne just kept on winning for the Preds.
Detroit is the organization that Nashville has long held as its standard for which to strive. On paper, the Predators have arrived to that point. Now, they must take the final, mental leap and prove that this is indeed their time.
Spotlight's on: Johan Franzen. He's the one big-body scorer on the Wings, the finisher on a puck-possession team. Datsyuk will put him in position to score and The Mule has to deliver, which he has in past playoffs. Pertinent as well is the fact that Franzen finally awoke from a prolonged slumber to tally three times in the final three games of the regular season, including his first multi-goal game since a hat trick on November 8 -- almost as if he was prepping for the playoffs.
X-Factor for the Predators: Alex Radulov. All eyes will be on him to see if he can deliver on the biggest stage. He gives the Predators an element they've never had -- a skilled scorer who can strike quickly in a tight game. Radulov as a difference-maker in a series like this is exactly what Poile had in mind when he drafted him 15th overall in 2004.
X-Factor for the Red Wings: Jonathan Eriksson. He returned to the line-up in March and immediately the Wings' penalty kill righted itself. During the final week of the season, coach Mike Babcock played Eriksson with Lidstrom to positive effect. That's a big responsibility for the Red Wings' largest rearguard. This series could hinge on how Eriksson handles the increased workload against the Predators' top players.
The Pick: Truly a seven-game pick 'em, with everything pointing to the Predators' arrival.
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