With a shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday afternoon, the Detroit Red Wings claimed the fifth seed in the Western Conference for themselves and the fourth seed for the Nashville Predators. These two teams will meet next week in the first round of the playoffs. Detroit and Nashville have met two previous times (2003-04, 2007-08), each previous series being won by Detroit in six games. This will be the first time Nashville will be the higher seed.
Here's how the season series went:
Game 1 (Nov. 26th) Predators 1 at Red Wings 4
Game 2 (Dec. 15th) Red Wings 3 at Predators 4
Game 3 (Dec. 26th) Red Wings 4 at Predators 1
Game 4 (Feb. 17th) Predators 1 at Red Wings 2
Game 5 (Mar. 10th) Red Wings 2 at Predators 3
Game 6 (Mar. 30th) Predators 4 at Red Wings 1
So the teams split the season series with each team stealing a game on the road. Aggregate score comes out 16-14 in favor of Detroit. One thing to note is that Nashville has dominated Detroit 7-3 since the trade deadline when team GM David Poile decided to "go for it" with several trades designed to help them on their playoff run.
So how do these teams match up now? Join us after the jump and we'll take a look at the matchup.
Nashville's Pekka Rinne was given a seven-year $49MM contract this season as a show of faith that he would be the team's starting netminder for the foreseeable future. Rinne paid them back by besting his previous high-mark for wins by Ten. His GAA went up slightly from his career average, but he had a better SV% than any year save for last season's outstanding .930. All things considered, Pekka Rinne will be a strong Vezina candidate this year.
On the other side, Jimmy Howard started the first year of his two-year $4.5MM contract on a tear, jumping out as the first NHL goaltender to reach the 20-win mark. Howard was slowed by injuries as the season went on, but he finished with 35 wins, a 2.14 GAA and .920 SV% in a season where he earned his first All-Star Game selection. His six shutouts more than matched his career totals to that point.
Overall: Nashville relies on their goaltending a lot more than Detroit and, despite Howard having better numbers in a couple of categories, Pekka Rinne is widely considered the better goalie, and for good reason.
Nashville has long been known as a tough defensive squad to play against, but this year they've struggled more with keeping the puck out of the net than perhaps they're used to. Last season's third-best defensive team fell to 10th best by giving up 2.50 goals per game. Their D-corps is anchored by easily the league's best pairing in Ryan Suter and likely Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber. Behind them are guys like rookie phenom Roman Josi, solid 2nd-pairing guy Kevin Klein, depth D-men Francis Bouillon & Ryan Ellis, and well-known "playoff defenseman" Hal Gill (in that they don't call interference as much in the postseason and all Hal Gill does is interfere with people.)
One of the most-frustratingly consistent things parroted by upset Wings fans is that they don't have a good D-corps. The truth is that Detroit boasted the league's 7th-best defense giving up only 2.44 goals per game thanks in large part to the return of seven-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom. Lidstrom spent much of the early season with Ian White, who posted a career-high 32 points in his 77 games. 2nd pairing defensemen Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart put up solid seasons, despite being pressed into first-pairing duties for stretches. The third pair rotation of Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl, Mike Commodore (now in Tampa Bay), Brendan Smith, and late-season addition Kyle Quincey had ups and downs like any third pairing is expected to, but got the job done more often than not.
Overall: Both teams saw their GA/G go up after the trade deadline, but the Wings' rise was bigger. Still, Detroit gave up fewer goals than Nashville and got more scoring out of their defense.
To make up for their defense giving up more goals than they're used to, Nashville responded with scoring the most goals since their 2007-08 squad put up a blistering 227 to finish 12th. Their 2.83 G/G is good for 8th in the league tied with Tampa Bay. Despite adding Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad at the trade deadline, as well as Alexander Radulov since then (*cough), their pace before/after the trade deadline hasn't changed significantly. What they do have is offensive depth. The Predators have 10 forwards who scored at least 10 goals this season and another that very well would have if he had decided to honor his NHL contract by playing more than 9 NHL games.
Detroit finished the 2011-12 season with the league's 7th-best offense thanks to a balanced scoring attack which saw them boast 11 players to hit double-digits in goals. Despite having no players hit 30 for the season, the Wings saw career highs from Jiri Hudler, Valtteri Filppula, Niklas Kronwall, Drew Miller, and Justin Abdelkader. Detroit ended the season struggling to find the back of the net, but are always a threat to pour it on.
Overall: Honestly, the matchup here is a bit closer than I'd like to admit, but the Wings simply have more firepower. Radulov, Erat, Hornqvist, and the Kostitsyns are dangerous top-six scorers, but they're not at the same level as Detroit's forwards. Line matchups and the bottom lines are going to end up huge if the top guns end up shutting one another down.
Nashville boasted the league's best power play and the tenth-best penalty kill. Their Bowman Index Score of 11 is a very frightening number which could go a very long way towards closing the advantage that Detroit enjoys with their 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio. Nashville neither takes nor draws many penalties, which could tilt things back in Detroit's favor, but the long-standing Detroit belief in letting their power play be their enforcer has been drastically challenged this season and will likely face a large test in round one.
On Detroit's end, they enter the postseason with a Bowman Index Score of 40. Their PK ended the season hot, but that is not a confidence-inspiring number. While 80% of the game is played at even-strength, the 20% that is special teams can have a huge effect on games and Detroit will have to improve for it to be a positive effect.
Overall: It's better for Detroit if no penalties get called the entire series.
Nashville is trying to build off of their first ever second-round berth last season and have declared themselves all-in for this season in an attempt to win for their fans and to prove to a couple of pending free agents that they are a team that is committed to putting together a winning roster. Their fanbase is loud and boisterous and they are strong both at home and on the road. They have known only one coach in their existence and he is well-known for employing an effective system. Questions about Trotz's ability to get the most out of a very talented roster will be answered this spring behind the bench of a team with everything to prove.
Detroit enters the postseason with the longest active playoffs streak in professional sports after a season peppered with stretches equally as dominant and troubling. Questions abound about whether they have a championship makeup anymore and whether the man who is widely considered one of the league's best coaches is still getting through to his team. As good as Detroit was at home, they were awful on the road, but they come in as a team that knows how to win in the playoffs. Despite what will certainly be a professional demeanor from them, they have to be feeling the pressure of two straight disappointing early exits and the pressure of a potential exit at the hands of a division rival in the first round.
Overall: Nashville has the better coaching while Detroit has the better players. The Wings are going to have to find a way to win games on the road and they're going to have to do it in the crucible that will be the Bridgestone Arena. This will be a hard-fought series and I predict most games to be decided by one goal.
Series Prediction: Detroit in 6.