NASHVILLE – The Nashville Predators slew the symbolic dragon represented by the Detroit Red Wings on Friday night -- and a son of Detroit delivered the decisive blow.
David Legwand, a Detroit native and a member of the Predators' organization for each of its 13 seasons, scored the game-winner 13 seconds into the third period as Nashville eliminated Detroit in their Western Conference Quarterfinal series with a 2-1 victory in Game 5 at raucous Bridgestone Arena.
Since entering the NHL in 1998 as a member of the Central Division, Nashville has measured itself against Detroit, the League's dominant franchise during the last two decades. For the first time in 2011-12 as the No. 4 seed in the West, Nashville finished ahead of the Red Wings in the standings -- and for the first time in three Stanley Cup Playoff meetings, they ousted their division rival.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz, the only man ever to have that job, said he thought that Legwand played with "fierce competitiveness."
"Leggie was a guy that I knew that at some point he would break out in this series and be a difference-maker and today he was," Trotz said. "David Legwand had his ‘A' game tonight, and I think it's really fitting that being a Detroit native and, really, Detroit's the gold standard in the Central Division, especially for us since I've gotten here. For David to sort of seal the deal tonight, the way he played I thought it was great."
The Preds won the series with victories in the last three games, including Games 3 and 4 at Joe Louis Arena, where they had never won in the postseason in six tries prior to this postseason. The goaltending of Pekka Rinne was integral. Rinne stopped 20 shots on Friday and allowed only nine goals in the five games.
Detroit coach Mike Babcock was unsparing in his analysis of his team, saying the Red Wings did not have the depth at forward to match Nashville's, especially after speedy center Darren Helm was lost in Game 1 with lacerated tendons in his forearm.
"I thought [Henrik] Zetterberg's line was good in this series," he said. "I thought they controlled the most of it. I didn't think we had enough other pieces going. We tried lots of combinations, as you probably saw and in the end I didn't think we had a whole lot of help for Pavel (Datsyuk) for whatever reason.
"But let's give Nashville some credit. They've got their top two [defensemen] are as good as – well, not many teams, I think they got three what I would call franchise players on their team in Pekka Rinne, [Shea] Weber and [Ryan] Suter. I don't know one other team that in the National League [that has that]… Those guys are top players, so I though they made it hard on Pavel."
It was the first time since 2006 that the Wings have been eliminated in the opening round. As close as each game was individually – only Game 4 was decided by more than one goal – Babcock said he thought that by losing in five games, the series was "not close." He mentioned how the organization's goal is to win championships, not simply to make the playoffs, and the front office will have plenty of time to assess what to do next.
"When you look at our group now, second-round knockout [in 2010] second-round knockout [in 2011] and a first-round knockout," he said. "To me, that doesn't look like you're going in the right direction."
As much symbolic meaning as a win over Detroit might have held, there was little celebrating in Nashville's dressing room after the game.
"You can't get too high," Suter said after the Predators won a playoff series for just the second time in franchise history. "A lot of teams win the first round. We have to stay level-headed and be ready to show up next week."
Trotz said he thought Nashville did not handle victory well last year after eliminating Anaheim in six games in the opening round. They lost in six games to eventual Western Conference champion Vancouver.
"You learn those lessons," he said. "Hey, we've got something here to do and this is just one step and we'll see what the next step brings, I guess."
Remarkably, this series never saw a lead change in a game.
Nashville broke a 1-1 tie 13 seconds into the third period. Alexander Radulov carried the puck deep into Detroit's zone, drawing two defenders. They managed to knock the puck away from him, but it came right to Legwand in the slot -- and Legwand beat Jimmy Howard high to the blocker side. Radulov, who rejoined Nashville in March after four years in the KHL, finished as the series' leader in points with five (one goal, four assists), including two on Friday.
"We, obviously, there's some games we didn't play our best, not like we didn't try, we tried, it just didn't work," Radulov said of his line. "And we sat down and talked a lot and we just have to work hard and that's what we did today and things turn around and work our way. Glad everything went good. Happy."
Down 1-0 in the second period, Detroit evened the game with 6:15 left in the period in a sequence that started with an icing call, as Paul Gaustad was just a few feet short of the red line before sending the puck over the goal line. The play ended up costing the Preds, who had their fourth line on the ice and could not get a change even after clearing their zone once following the faceoff.
Off the rush from the right side, Detroit's Valtteri Filppula sent the puck towards the net and it glanced off the skate of Nashville defenseman Roman Josi and sat in front. Jiri Hudler beat his man to it and poked the puck over the line the equalizer.
Radulov put the Predators ahead by scoring his first goal of the playoffs with 3:50 left in the first period. The puck went into the corner, where Red Wings defenseman Kyle Quincey misplayed it -- and Legwand was waiting. Legwand sent the puck into the slot to a wide-open Radulov, who roofed his shot high to the blocker side.
Once again in this series, goals were hard to come by and both goalies stood tall. In the first period with Mike Fisher wide open in the slot off a faceoff win, Howard came out of his paint and gobbled up the shot. Rinne stopped Filppula on a partial breakaway.
Through the midpoint of the game, the Red Wings had only 10 shots and by the second intermission Detroit was 0-for-2 on the power play and Nashville 0-for-3. Neither team had much time with the man advantage through 40 minutes: 2:16 for Detroit and 4:16 for Nashville. There were no power plays in the third period.
In a season when Detroit established a League record for consecutive home victories, Zetterberg said falling short this early was hard.
"As I said, everyone in here believed we had a good team and we could do something this year and we didn't," he said. "When that happens, you're frustrated and you're disappointed."