We're getting close to the end of the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but there is still plenty to be decided, and there are still plenty of storylines coming out of what has been an entertaining tournament so far. For my money, however, one of the biggest stories is the way Nashville knocked out the mighty Detroit Red Wings in just five games, and it raises a pretty real question:
Are the Predators the team to beat?
When the playoffs began two weeks ago, I think if you weren't one of the people that thought this team had a chance to win, then you didn't know much about hockey. This is a heck of a hockey team, plain and simple, and its win over Detroit shows it. The interesting thing about this matchup was that it was something of a changing of the guard in the West. The Predators will tell you that their model for this team is Detroit. They want to build their team like Detroit, build their organization like Detroit -- they even throw fish on the ice like Detroit fans throw octopi. They want a tradition just like the Red Wings have.
If you look at how they're built, the Predators have great goaltending and maybe the best goaltender playing in the playoffs right now. Brian Elliot has been good for St. Louis, but he hasn't faced the shots that Pekka Rinne has, and Jonathan Quick has been good for Los Angeles, but other than those two, I can't think of a goalie who has played as well as Rinne.
Then you look at Nashville's defense, which has two studs on the top pair with Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, but it's also got this kid Kevin Klein, who had two goals in the series and played great defense. And this is all without Hal Gill, who hasn't been in the lineup. If you look at their forwards, they have four lines that can all play, their special teams are very good and they have a very good defensive system to go along with a great goaltender. This team is for real.
I think the last piece to the puzzle was getting Alexander Radulov, because they didn't have that one pure goal scorer. They had a lot of guys who can score like Mike Fisher or Martin Erat, but the one pure goal scorer that only needs one chance -- Radulov is that goal scorer now, and we saw that in that last game against Detroit.
I picked Nashville to beat Detroit, so I thought they were ready to come out of their shell and go to the prom, but I didn't think it would be five games -- and I didn't think the Predators would beat the Red Wings in Game 5 giving up just 22 shots. When you can do that to a team like Detroit, with the talent level and history Detroit has, it sends messages to the rest of the League.
Beating Detroit in five games was impressive, but how they did it, with tight checking, great defense, controlling Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for the most part, making Detroit's defense look average at times -- it all adds up to a pretty dominant win. Any series that ends in five games is a dominant win, but things like only giving up 22 shots in the last game, that's a message sender. That makes teams look at the tape and think, "Wow, how are we going to get through the neutral zone and get our chances?"
They're just solid from top to bottom.
Of course, we're only through one round right now. If Nashville is going to win the Cup they've got three more rounds to get through, but I like the way the draw shapes up for them. With St. Louis locked into facing Los Angeles in the second round, the Preds are going to face whoever wins between the Coyotes or the Blackhawks.
If you watch the way Phoenix and Chicago play, both have some question marks. Phoenix is up in the series, but they're giving up a bunch of shots and they were basically outshot 2-to-1 for a while in Game 5 Saturday night. It's not a case of Phoenix dominating Chicago. Mike Smith has been unbelievable and Corey Crawford can't stop the puck in overtime. That's the only reason this series has gone this far. Phoenix is a team that stresses defense and goaltending, very much like Nashville. Chicago will give the Predators a lot of offensive weapons to deal with, but if Marian Hossa's still out, that's a big weapon gone.
The Preds have two different matchups waiting for them, each with its own share of problems, but I think with the Predators' system, goaltending and depth, they match up well against both of them.
If Nashville gets through the second round it might very well face its division rival St. Louis. To me these are the two best teams playing in the West right now, and that would be a very difficult series for each -- and a very difficult one in which to see goals. Both of them look good, but Nashville's first-round win against Detroit has shown me something. When the playoffs began, I had Chicago coming out of the West, but with the way the field is shaping up and the way the Predators are playing, seeing them facing off in the Stanley Cup Final wouldn't surprise me one bit.