For years, the division-rival Detroit Red Wings were seen as a bit of a measuring stick for the Nashville Predators. In the earliest days, shortly after helping name the franchise and picking out the carpet for the office, coach Barry Trotz could judge the progress of his expansion team when sizing it up against the Original Six powerhouse up north.
Even in his most recent swing through Detroit, Trotz noted hockey's success in Nashville and suggested that Tennessee's capital had become Hockeytown South, a nod to Detroit's marketing slogan.
So it's quite fitting that the year in which the Predators are best poised to win a Stanley Cup, they have to go through Detroit to make it happen. It's not quite a big brother-little brother complex, but Nashville has just about outgrown measuring itself against Detroit. Send the Red Wings home for the summer and make a run in the spring, and the comparisons might change for both teams.
"We have to bring our game and have them start talking about us," said Predators forward Jordin Tootoo. "It's been enough of us trying to measure up to them. We're beyond that. We have to worry about ourselves. We're a great team when we want to play, that's just making sure everyone is in it together. When we're doing that, we're hard to play against."
And they are. Especially with their second-half additions that included the return of Alexander Radulov and the trade deadline additions of defenseman Hal Gill and forwards Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn.
"They made some good moves. I guess they needed to do that," said Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg. "We like our chances. Everyone is going to be tough. You play good teams all the way from the start."
1. Radulov's Impact:
Alexander Radulov has played in 10 career Stanley Cup playoff games, putting up an impressive five goals in that span. But he's come a long way since his last trip to the playoffs as a 21-year-old in 2008. This is a different player, even if he's still making the adjustment from the KHL to the NHL. "It's maturity. You can't speed that process up," said Predators coach Barry Trotz. "He's a lot more patient with everything. On and off the ice, he's just more patient. With the game, the process, his use of people on the ice, his strength and size -- he's much bigger than he was. I just think he's more comfortable being Alex Radulov." Besides the smaller ice surface, the game has changed since Radulov left and he has had to adjust to a more aggressive forecheck and defensemen constantly jumping into the play. "All that has gone from passive-based to a little bit more pressure-based," Trotz said. But the transition has gone well and there's no doubt he can be a difference-maker in this series. "He's so good from the hashmarks in," Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard said. "When he has the puck on his stick, it's tough to get it off him. It's like [Pavel Datsyuk] in a lot of ways."
2. Howard vs. Rinne:
Injuries derailed what was turning into a special season for Jimmy Howard, who made his All-Star Game debut in Ottawa this year. But he managed to get in five starts at the end of the season after returning from a groin injury and liked the way his game progressed heading into the playoffs. Coach Mike Babcock especially liked Howard's 27-save effort in a win last week against the Blues. "I feel really good," Howard said. "A lot better than where I was a month ago this is the fun time of year. Now it's a sprint to 16." The Red Wings will need him on top of his game in order to keep up with Nashville's Pekka Rinne, who led the league with 43 wins. Rinne shrugged off concerns about his heavy workload, saying he enjoys the challenge. His 73 games played were the second most in the league, and no goalie faced more shots or made more saves this season than Rinne. He should be in the mix again for the Vezina. "They get real good goaltending," said Babcock. "Your goaltending needs to be outstanding."
3. Suter Sweepstakes:
Defenseman Ryan Suter, a potential unrestricted free agent, is an interesting subplot to this series. If the Predators make a long playoff run, the chances of him staying in Nashville increase dramatically. If they lose early, he might decide that his best chance to win a Stanley Cup is outside of Nashville. Detroit has the money to spend this summer and Suter would be at the top of the Red Wings' wish list if he becomes available. What better way to show that he has a better chance at a Stanley Cup in Detroit than by beating the Predators in the first round? A first-round series win for Detroit could pay off now and on July 1.
4. Red Wings' Road Woes:
Earning the No. 4 seed was crucial for the Predators, especially considering Detroit's struggles on the road this season. Nobody in the league had as big a swing when it came to success at home versus winning on the road. At Joe Louis Arena, the Red Wings carved a spot in the NHL record books with their home win streak. Yet, on the road they were just 17-21-3. "The home record is a little misleading and I think the road record is a little misleading," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said. The silver lining for Detroit is the short trip to Nashville to start the playoffs rather than a long trip West to play a Pacific team, like they have the past two seasons with a pair of series each against Phoenix and San Jose. "You know you're going to play good teams every round," Zetterberg said. "The team doesn't really matter. The travel is huge for us. To get that shorter travel and one-hour time difference, that's good for us."
5. Pressure on the Predators:
The aggressive pursuit of a Stanley Cup this season by Predators GM David Poile is admirable. He sent a clear message to his players, Nashville fans and the rest of the league when he loaded up for this playoff run. But with those moves came increased expectations, and this might be the most pressure any Nashville team has felt to win. "It doesn't matter what the expectations are. I think it's great," said Rinne. "I like the fact that we're improving as a team and as an organization. That's the biggest thing that brings a lot of confidence to your players and us here. You can feel it." They might be embracing it now, but once the series heats up, dealing with that pressure could be an issue for a team that has never advanced beyond the second round. "It's a different monster they're going to have to address," said a Western Conference scout.
• Detroit penalty kill vs. Nashville power play:
Long before the Predators were bolstering their roster for a playoff run or dreaming of luring Alexander Radulov back from Russia, they were one of the youngest teams in the league, finding ways to win at the beginning of the season. Rinne was a big reason for Nashville's early success, but so was the power play. "Our power play was scoring timely goals for us early," said coach Barry Trotz. "We weren't a good team, we were stealing some victories. That allowed us some time to get ourselves together." The Predators' power play remains extremely potent, sitting at the top of the league at 21.6 percent thanks in large part to Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, who do a fantastic job getting pucks on net, with Weber's shot from the point one of the most dangerous in the game. Detroit's penalty kill has been average this season, sitting at No. 18 in the NHL at 81.8 percent, but Mike Babcock said he was encouraged with its progress following the return of Jimmy Howard and defenseman Jonathan Ericsson.
• Paul Gaustad:
The Predators paid a steep price in sending a first-round pick to Buffalo for 6-foot-5 center Paul Gaustad, a player the Red Wings were also very interested in at the trade deadline. It will be well worth it if he helps the Predators advance in the playoffs by continuing to win crucial faceoffs against a Red Wings team that thrives on puck possession. He wins an impressive 57.3 percent of his faceoffs, which could help neutralize Pavel Datsyuk, who is outstanding as well at 56.2 percent. But if Nashville loses and Gaustad ends up leaving as a free agent on July 1, that deal might not hold up well to scrutiny this summer.
• Darren Helm: Health is always an issue with Detroit, and the Red Wings have managed to get their most important players back on the ice in time for the playoffs. But the loss of Darren Helm can't be underestimated. He's still recovering from a knee injury and Mike Babcock remains optimistic Helm will be back in time for Game 2 of this series. Detroit will need his speed and presence on the penalty kill against Nashville's potent power play. If Helm is ineffective in his return from the injury, that could be trouble for the Red Wings. "We need Helmer back for sure," Babcock said. "Our energy level from our bottom six is not nearly as close."
• Either way, an extremely talented team will be out after one round. Detroit's road struggles are a concern and Nashville's loud building isn't the best place to try to solve them. The Predators have the best shutdown D pair in hockey, more depth up front, better special teams and a slight edge in goal. It'll be just enough to get by. Predators in 7: