Details will determine Nashville’s success against Detroit
By Seth Lake
When the No. 4 seeded Nashville Predators take the ice against the No. 5 seeded Detroit Red Wings in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals on Wednesday night at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, it will be the seventh meeting between the two teams this season and third meeting of the teams in the NHL postseason. Both teams are familiar with each other, their personnel, and their systems.
Having finished ahead of Detroit in the standings for the first time in franchise history this season, the Predators will have the advantage of playing at home for the first two games of the series where they went 26-10-5 during the regular season. With each team featuring an aggressive forechecking style of play, a strong team defense, and an all-star caliber goaltender, Nashville head coach Barry Trotz will look to the details of the game to prepare the Predators to win the series.
- Managing Emotions – Discipline will be a major key to this series for the Predators. Most of the time people immediately equate discipline with avoiding penalties, but playing against the Red Wings in a playoff series is about more than that. Discipline against Detroit involves managing your emotions, making good decisions with and without the puck, and avoiding making the mistakes the Red Wings look to capitalize upon. To do this requires a full 60-minute effort both in terms of physical energy and mental focus. The Red Wings will finish their checks, they will look to hit you in the neutral zone where you don’t expect the contact, they will lift your stick and bump you away from the puck, etc. Detroit will test the Predators capacity to remain disciplined throughout the game, looking to upset them just enough to create a turnover, lose your concentration enough to lose your man in coverage, or even take a penalty to give them the man-advantage. Beating Detroit will involve a great deal of mental discipline for the Predators throughout the series beginning on Wednesday night with Game 1 and continuing through the final buzzer. In the end, the reward for turning their cheek and maintaining discipline could be being able to look their opponent in the eyes as they shake their hands at the end of the series.
- Dealing with Size and Speed – Part of what makes Detroit a difficult matchup for most teams around the league is that they are able to challenge their opponents with a combination of lines with skilled players with size and those with skilled players with speed. Having last line change through the first two games of the series Trotz will look to matchup his defense against the Red Wings top line featuring Todd Bertuzzi and Johan Franzen flanking Pavel Datsyuk with size and their second line with Valterri Filippula and Jiri Hudler complimenting center Henrik Zetterberg with speedy wingers. As he has throughout the season, Trotz will look towards his pair of Norris trophy candidates in Ryan Suter and Shea Weber to lead the way against the Red Wings playing a majority of minutes each night, but with the addition of veteran Hal Gill at the deadline and emergence of rookie Roman Josi throughout the season, the Predators will look to divide the task of matching up against Detroit’s ying and yang top-six throughout the series. With Weber and Gill possessing the size to compete with Bertuzzi and Franzen in the corners and at the net and Suter and Josi possessing the speed and smarts to keep up with Hudler and Filippula around the defensive zone both pairings have the tools to compete with Detroit and their ability to support each other will play a key role in the series keeping both pairings fresh and ready to compete. Gill, however, will be a game-time decision Wednesday night. Gill blocked a shot on the side of his skate in the final minute of play against Dallas last week. Losing Gill to injury would be a tremendous loss for the Predators.
- Finding Sources of Secondary Scoring – While the focus heading into the series will be on the top offensive players from each team, finding sources of secondary scoring will be a key for each team. The Predators are deeper than ever before in this area with 11 players finishing the regular season with 10 goals or more and will look to exploit the Red Wings with a third line featuring leading goal scorer Patric Hornqvist (27 goals) and rookie Gabriel Bourque (8 points in last 11 games) and a fourth line possibly having Matt Halischuk (15 goals) and Craig Smith (14 goals) on the wings. Scoring from the defense will be an area both teams will look to use throughout the series. The Predators will look for offense from their top pairing of Suter and Weber and also depend on Josi for offense from the second pairing, but don’t discount Francis Bouillon or Kevin Klein contributing from the third pairing either. Bouillon has been hot recently scoring 3 goals in the final 6 games of the regular season including the game-winning goal at Detroit on March 30th in the last meeting between the teams. In order for the Predators to win the series, they will need to have players step up from outside the top lines to create offense. The Predators were undefeated this season when scoring at least 3 goals against Detroit and finished the season with an overall record of 39-7-4 when scoring 3 goals or more.
- Importance of Faceoffs – The importance of faceoffs in all three zones will be critical to a successful series for the Predators. Detroit is strong in the faceoff circle with Datsyuk (56.2%), Justin Abdelkader (52.9%), and Filppula (51.7%) leading the way for the Red Wings and giving them the advantage. Paul Gaustad (57.3%) was brought in at the trade deadline to bolster the Predators in this area and will likely see the majority of defensive zone draws for the Predators from both sides of the rink. But more than simply the center winning the faceoff cleanly, it will be important to watch how the Nashville wingers support their centers in the circle moving in to win loose pucks and then moving out into position to either cover their opponent off a loss or get into position to provide support for a quick shot or breakout pass on a win. Both teams will look to feature a puck-possession style of play throughout the series. Winning the faceoff cleanly and establishing possession controls the tempo of the shift, forcing the losing team to expend energy chasing the puck around the rink playing defense and looking to create a turnover. While winning the overall faceoff battle will not be an indicator of team success (team winning the majority of faceoffs in the game won just 1 of 5 games this season – first game teams each went 50%), it will be a source of interest for each team throughout the series, especially as the clock winds down and the teams look to protect a lead or tie things up and look to control the puck.
- Special Teams Must Be Special – It is well documented that the Predators finished the season with the No. 1 power play unit in the NHL converting on 21.6% of their opportunities. A traditionally strong unit, Detroit finished the season ranked 22nd in the League, scoring on just 16.1% of their chances. In the season series Nashville looked to their power play to fuel two wins over Detroit including a third period comeback on December 15th and two goal performance from Andrei Kostitsyn on March 10th. After killing just one of the first four attempts against through the first two games of the series, the Predators penalty killing unit (83.6%) killed off the Red Wings final ten attempts of the regular season. Whether searching for a goal to take a lead or spark a comeback, both teams will place great emphasis on special teams throughout this series especially with the opportunities becoming scarcer and each team featuring a top notch netminder in goal.