The Nashville Predators made franchise history a year ago when they won a series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time. They now stand one victory away from perhaps an even more significant accomplishment: winning a series against the Central Division rival Detroit Red Wings, who have won four Stanley Cups in the past 15 years.
But even as the Predators return to Bridgestone Arena for Game 5 on Friday (8 p.m. ET, CNBC, CBC) with a chance to wrap things up and buy themselves some rest before the second round, the only coach the team has ever had feels there are improvements still to be made. Appearing as a guest Thursday on "NHL Hour with Commissioner Gary Bettman," Barry Trotz expounded on that thought process.
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"We have to spend a little bit more zone time," he said. "We've been on our heels a little bit, playing a little too safe at times, and therefore not playing the game that we need to play against Detroit, because Detroit's very sound defensively. Everything about Detroit is about numbers. They play a little different system than some teams in the National Hockey League, so it's making that translate into production for us.
"We've been able to score on them and a lot of them have been on counter plays with them trying to do a lot of stuff -- they've been really trying to crowd the net with [goalie] Pekka Rinne, obviously. My biggest issue is in the blue paint, and knocking players into your goalie all the time, those types of things. We all have our beefs. But our series has been really hard in a sense that everybody's fighting for inches. It hasn't been a nasty series where anything's gone really over the line, but it has been a very, very hard-fought, grinding series."
Nashville, which won its first-round series against Anaheim last year in six games, lost both of its previous playoff matchups against Detroit. Trotz understands nothing has been decided yet -- especially considering the Red Wings nearly rallied from a 3-0 series deficit against the Sharks in the 2011 Western Conference Semifinals, forcing a Game 7 before being eliminated.
"We have a lot of respect for the Detroit Red Wings, their players -- they've got some great players -- the coaching staff and also the organization," Trotz said. "When we came into the NHL, I always said at some point I want to thank the Detroit Red Wings because they made us better, because we had to play them a whole heck of a lot in the Central Division and they forced us to raise our game to a different level. This is an opportunity to do something special in Nashville, but at the same time we know how difficult that will be and how proud that organization is in Detroit."
Despite having the youngest team in the League, the Predators won 48 games and amassed 104 points this season, both totals good for the third-highest in the franchise's 13 seasons. In talking about the team's achievements, Trotz prominently mentioned a pair of young players, Colin Wilson and Craig Smith, who saw their roles diminished down the stretch and have been healthy scratches to this point in the playoffs. Trotz made a point of noting they were still key contributors to the club's success.
"It is a little bit difficult because those guys got you to the playoffs … but at the same time, you're a game or two away from having two or three guys injured and out for a series and those guys have to be ready to step up," he said.
Trotz, who surpassed 1,000 games and 500 wins as an NHL coach earlier this season, was asked to take the average fan behind the bench and offer insight into what he does during a game.
"The No. 1 priority for a head coach, especially in the playoffs and even in the regular season, is to have the right players on the ice at the right time," he said. "Players are bigger, faster, stronger than they ever have been, and you've got to have the right players on the ice for the right situation. That's No. 1 and paramount. You talk about matching up and why you match up and certain roles, those have to be executed by the coach and by the players as well.
"You have to make in-game adjustments, between-period adjustments, and that falls on the coaching staff in terms of subtleties that happen in a game and adjustments from game to game. The biggest thing in the playoffs is that you're playing the same team over and over again. So they make take out something that maybe you're doing through the neutral zone and they're having great success with it, and you need to try to counter that, so you may make a change to counter that and then the next game they counter your change, and it becomes a little bit of a chess match."
In discussing his demeanor behind the bench, Trotz revealed that although he's as prone as any other coach to giving grief to the officials, he'll watch replays of their calls between periods of a game and upon coming back out to the bench will call them over to tell them a penalty he criticized earlier was in reality an excellent call on their part.
"You have to be the calm one," he said about how he tries to conduct himself. "If you're in control, your players will be in control, and at least hopefully take your lead."