NASHVILLE , Tenn. -- After his team had won for the 12th time in its last 15 games, Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock quizzed reporters.
"Who is the best team in the West?" he asked.
The query went unanswered, but Babcock's point was made that the two-time Western Conference champion Red Wings will be as dangerous as anyone when the playoffs begin in a little more than two weeks.
After struggling through much of the season because of injuries, the Red Wings and rookie goalie Jimmy Howard are on fire and they continued that with a 1-0 11-round shootout victory on Saturday over Central Division rival Nashville before a sellout crowd of 17,113 at Bridgestone Arena.
"I think Chicago's probably been the best team in the West, but San Jose might be that," Babcock said. "Who knows who the best team in the West is? That's what I'm trying to say -- I don't know if you interview 10 people if they'd all give you the same three. That's how tight the League is now. With our experience, if we go to the tournament, we feel like we have a chance."
After the playoffs once seemed unthinkably uncertain, Detroit has gone 12-2-1 in its last 15 and now has 91 points, one less than Nashville, which is fifth in the conference and has gone 7-1-1 in its last eight. Detroit passed Colorado for seventh and had a chance to pass Los Angeles, as well.
A big reason for the Wings' surge is the play of Howard, whom Babcock said is giving Detroit its best goaltending in the five seasons he has coached there.
Howard, who has made 22 consecutive starts for Detroit and entered the game ranked fourth in the League in save percentage, stopped all 33 shots he faced through 65 minutes, then denied 10 of 11 shooters in the shootout to earn his second shutout of the season.
Pekka Rinne also was outstanding in stopping 38 shots and nine of 11 shots in the shootout. Rinne earned his seventh shutout of the season, tying him for second in the NHL.
"It was a lot of fun," Howard said. "I mean, just going against Pekka, we've become friends from playing against each other a lot in the AHL and then in playing on the AHL All-Star team together. We've just gotten to know each other a lot. He's become a friend of mine. He's a great guy, and whenever we play against each other it's just an absolute battle."
The shootout was truly a battle with both goalies stopping the first four shots they faced. In the fourth round as the shootout went to sudden death, Todd Bertuzzi took his time, faked Rinne to the ice and beat him with a back-hander.
Steve Sullivan then answered for Nashville.
It stayed that way until Niklas Kronwall faked the long-legged, 6-foot-5 Rinne to the ice and slid the puck between his legs. Howard then stopped Francis Bouillon for the win - the Red Wings' longest shootout since the tie-breaker was instituted in 2005-06.
"Rinne's a goalie that covers a lot side-to-side and it looked like he could open him up and it was great to see him do that," said Babcock, adding that the shootout "has not been our friend" with Detroit losing nine of 14 this season.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz complemented the play of Rinne, who has made nine straight starts and had shutouts in four of his last eight.
"It's not tough luck," Trotz said. "He played well and neither team gave an inch. When you're 11 shooters deep, it's a great goaltending performance for both. It was a great game."
With Detroit playing for the sixth time in nine days, Babcock said he thought fatigue showed early. Nashville, with an off day at home, took advantage in the first period of the Wings' weary legs, outshooting Detroit 7-0 over the first 10 minutes.
Some of those shots came from three power plays in the period the Preds earned, but they could do nothing with them.
Momentum swung Detroit's way in the second period as the Wings outshot Nashville 15-7.
Both sides agreed that Howard made the save of the game in the final five minutes on David Legwand. The Nashville center, skating into the slot, took a feed from the corner and one-timed a shot low to Howard's glove side that the goalie turned back with his left pad.
Legwand has now failed to score in 34 straight games.
"It was just a pretty quick play, actually, all three forwards touched the puck," Howard said. "It started off in the middle, got kicked out to the outside and I forgot who it was who made the pass to [Legwand] but I knew I didn't have enough time to get out to the top of my crease, so I knew he was going far side, so I just pushed across."
"That was really huge," Trotz said.
Nashville's offense should get a boost whenever center Jason Arnott, the Predators' captain, can return. Arnott, who has a head injury, is listed as day-to-day.
|1||P. Datsyuk||C. O'Reilly|
|2||J. Williams||M. Erat|
|3||H. Zetterberg||D. Legwand|
|4||J. Franzen||M. Goc|
|5||T. Bertuzzi||S. Sullivan|
|6||V. Filppula||C. Franson|
|7||D. Miller||P. Hornqvist|
|8||T. Holmstrom||J. Dumont|
|9||P. Eaves||D. Boyd|
|10||K. Draper||C. Wilson|
|11||N. Kronwall||F. Bouillon|
|Power Play %||23.8%||16.2%|
|% on Road||20.7%||17.2%|
|% at Home||26.6%||15.2%|
|Johan Franzen Holding against Martin Erat|
|Nicklas Lidstrom Interference against Colin Wilson|
|Tomas Holmstrom Hooking against Martin Erat|
|Francis Bouillon Hi-sticking against Kris Draper|
|Francis Bouillon Holding against Todd Bertuzzi|