NASHVILLE – Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock thinks his team might have found the secret to defusing the Nashville Predators' power play, the League's top-ranked unit during the regular season -- and he might be right.
After killing all six chances in a 3-2 loss in Game 1, the Red Wings blanked the Predators again on all six tries and three different goal-scorers helped them to even the series with a 3-2 win at Bridgestone Arena on Friday night.
Ian White, Cory Emmerton and Johan Franzen scored for the Wings and Jimmy Howard proved a key penalty-killer by making 24 saves to send the series to Detroit for Game 3 on Sunday even at 1-1. The Red Wings won although they were outshot 26-17 and managed only four shots in the third period.
Despite finishing the season with a 22.9 percent efficiency on the power play, the Predators only functioned at 17 percent in their six games against Detroit, Babcock said, and the only game in which Nashville scored multiple power-play goals against the Red Wings came when the coaches changed up their strategy.
By pressuring the points and preventing shots from the likes of Nashville defenseman Shea Weber – whose 19 goals tied for the League lead among defensemen – Detroit is winning the special teams battle thus far. Including the last seven games of the regular season, Detroit has killed off 37 consecutive opposition power plays.
"The only time they scored two goals in one game we got real smart as coaches and told them we weren't going to pressure from the top down and we were going to cut off Weber and then we dug it out of our net twice, so coaches' minus-2 that night wasn't very good," Babcock said. "But other than that, we've had pretty good success against them. We really thought our penalty kill was coming early in the year there, was rolling along big-time over a 20-game period over 87 percent -- and then we lost [Howard] and [defenseman Jonathan] Ericsson and the wheels came off our penalty kill and we're being aggressive here again now. To me, if you're aggressive, you have a great chance to kill."
Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter said his team's power play is a "work in progress" and that the Preds have to guard against getting frustrated.
"When you have success with something all year and then it doesn't come through for you, it's obviously frustrating, but if we stick with it, I think it will come," he said.
Asked if the Red Wings have gotten inside the heads of the Predators, Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom said they were just trying to do their job.
"Try to be big in lanes, be aggressive when we can and try to take away some of the shots they're trying to get," he said. "We're just trying to do what we talked about doing."
Weber, pinching in from the point, cut the Wings' lead to 3-2 with 4:44 left in regulation, backhanding a pass from behind the goal by Paul Gaustad high into the net, but Nashville could not get the equalizer.
Detroit took a 2-0 lead into first intermission, getting started by its fourth line at 8:25 of the first period. Tomas Holmstrom helped the Red Wings to win the puck along the right wall, and it came free to White at the right point. He had room to skate, used it and beat goalie Pekka Rinne with a 35-foot wrist shot above the blocker.
Detroit scored again when Emmerton, a rookie, netted his first career playoff goal, taking advantage of a blind pass by Nashville defenseman Kevin Klein in the offensive zone. Emmerton blocked it, raced down the left side and also went blocker side for an unassisted goal.
Andrei Kostitsyn cut the score to 2-1 with 10:59 left in the second period after Nashville's power play misfired three times earlier in the period, including a 30-second 5-on-3. Alex Radulov won the puck behind the net and found Kostitsyn wide-open in the slot. Kostitsyn had plenty of time and fired in a wrist shot past Howard.
"Andrei Kostitsyn was an absolute bull and I think he was going to be a factor in this series, just as I think Radulov is," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said.
But Detroit regained its two-goal lead just 56 seconds later. Defenseman Brad Stuart joined the rush to create a 3-on-2 and carried the puck towards the left corner.
He threw the puck at the net from well inside the left circle; it glanced off Franzen's meaty left calf and went past Rinne at 9:57. After the game, Franzen pointed to a black mark on his red hose where the puck made contact and went in.
"It was good to answer right away," Franzen said. "That's always huge. Otherwise they will come with their momentum. You know, we stopped momentum and took it right back, so, yeah, that was important."
Said Trotz: "To me, it's all about momentum. The real tough thing that I only regret is we got it to 2-1 and we had good momentum and they scored a minute later. You've got to hold momentum and seize that moment and see if you can carry that a little longer than 56 seconds."
At 1:36 of the first period, Weber and Detroit's Todd Bertuzzi received fighting majors. As the horn went to end Game 1, Weber received a roughing minor for shoving the head of Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg into the glass. Weber was fined $2,500 by the League for the play. Franzen received a minor penalty at the same time as Bertuzzi and Weber went to the box -- but Weber, a key to Nashville's power play, was unable to take part in that one.
"I thought we did a great job attacking them and getting on the board first," Howard said. "[Emmerton] on that 2-on-1 and what can you say about Todd, stepping up like that and going after Shea?"
Howard was asked if he had a feeling that Bertuzzi would challenge Weber.
"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I was just telling myself all morning to keep my emotions out of it and just go out and play."
Babcock praised Bertuzzi for challenging Weber, though Bertuzzi downplayed the altercation.
"It's hockey," Bertuzzi said. "Things happen in the game and whatever. It's kind of something you gotta do. You have to stick up for your teammates and do stuff like that. The game was more important. It was good to get a win in here. They played us hard at the end. Our big guys played well."