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Third times the charm for Preds against Wings?

by Staff

Nashville Predators

Seed: 4 • 48-26-8104Pts.

Detroit Red Wings

Seed: 548-28-6102Pts.

The Nashville Predators don't have a ton of postseason history, but a good portion of it has come against the Detroit Red Wings. This is Nashville's eighth trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the third time it will face Detroit.

The Predators lost each of those two previous matchups in six games (2004 and 2008), but this is the first time Nashville has finished ahead of the Red Wings in the standings and will, as a result, hold home-ice advantage.

Little separated these teams in the regular season this campaign, as well. The Central Division rivals split their six-game series with each team going 2-1 on home ice. Detroit owns a 17-13 advantage in goals, but the Predators have won the two most recent meetings.

With a late-season makeover, the Preds may have changed their look up front more than any team.

At the 2012 NHL Trade Deadline, Nashville added center Paul Gaustad, a penalty-killing and faceoff specialist, and scoring wing Andrei Kostitsyn. Then, after the deadline, scoring wing Alexander Radulov, who had abandoned his contract with Nashville, returned after four seasons of playing in his native Russia in the Kontinental Hockey League.

In his nine regular-season games, Radulov proved himself a threat with three goals, four assists and a shootout winner. He and Kostitsyn, a Belarusian, have shown chemistry playing on a line centered by David Legwand, who reached the 50-point mark for the second time in his career.

Nashville's top line is a two-way threat, centered by Mike Fisher, who hit the 20-goal mark for the fifth time. Fisher's wings are Sergei Kostitsyn (second straight 40-point season) on the left and Martin Erat, Nashville's leader in points.

With the additions, right wing Patric Hornqvist, one of the team's top two goal-scorers, has moved to the third line centered by Nick Spaling with Gabriel Bourque -- forming a group with energy and grit. Gaustad will skate with a number of players that coach Barry Trotz will choose from: either Brandon Yip or veteran Jordin Tootoo on the right with Matt Halischuk or rookie Craig Smith on the left.

Colin Wilson, who sat out nine games down the stretch, mostly a result of coach's decision, will have to work his way back into the lineup despite averaging 0.5 points per game.

The good news is that the top six appears to be solidifying itself just in time for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Henrik Zetterberg centering the top line between Valtteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler and Pavel Datsyuk in the middle of Todd Bertuzzi and Johan Franzen.  

As always with Detroit, Franzen must find his scoring touch and get hot for the Red Wings to really be at their most dangerous -- yet Filppula has started shooting the puck more and Hudler finished with a career-best 25 goals, as well as 50 points.

The bad news resides on the third line, where speed-merchant Darren Helm is supposed to be centering Drew Miller and Justin Abdelkader or Danny Cleary. Instead, Helm is out with a sprained knee and likely won't return to action until the third game of this series at the earliest.  The Red Wings depend on Helm's speed to put pressure on opposing power-play point men, and he's also become a puck hound during even-strength play.

The wild card is talented rookie Gustav Nyquist, who impressed when given a chance to play in Franzen's spot with Bertuzzi and Datsyuk.

Shea Weber, a finalist for the Norris Trophy this past season, is having perhaps an even better season and tied for the League lead in goals by a defenseman with 19. Weber and Ryan Suter were both All-Stars and form possibly the League’s best tandem.

Expect that duo to play at least half the game and regularly against top lines, as they each finished in the top five in the NHL in time-on-ice per game during the regular season. The 6-foot-7 Hal Gill, another pre-deadline acquisition, is a penalty-killing and shot-blocking specialist paired with offensive-minded rookie Roman Josi. Veterans Kevin Klein and Francis Bouillon form a solid third pair.

There is no easy way to say this, but the legendary Nicklas Lidstrom is still pretty limited in his skating by a deep bone bruise in his ankle. As a result, he's almost playing like a stay-at-home defenseman. The 41-year old Lidstrom's mere presence on the ice, however, is a big plus for the Wings -- who really struggled in the 11 games he missed.

In the past few games, big-bodied Jonathan Ericsson has been paired with Lidstrom instead of Ian White, who flourished as the captain's partner before the ankle injury. Niklas Kronwall (15 goals) had one of his better offensive seasons and contributed to Detroit's defensemen scoring a lot more than they did a year ago. As a group, the Detroit defensemen managed 49 goals and 181 points.

Rookie Brendan Smith is the wild card among this position group after impressing in a brief stint of regular playing time caused by injuries. He will likely rejoin the team as one of Detroit's "black aces," but could actually find himself in the lineup.

Pekka Rinne, a Vezina Trophy finalist this past season, led the League with 43 wins this season. He also posted a 2.39 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.

Trotz has made a top priority rest for Rinne, who also ranked in the top two in the League in games played. Expect backup Anders Lindback to play only in emergency or mop-up duty.

When healthy, Jimmy Howard has been one of the League's best, plain and simple. Prior to fracturing the index finger on his right [blocker side] hand, Howard played in his first NHL All-Star Game and was on pace at one point to break Martin Brodeur's NHL record for wins in season.

The last couple months, however, have frustrated Howard, who dealt with a nagging groin injury shortly after returning from the broken finger. Behind Howard likely will be veteran Ty Conklin, who has had his share of struggles. Joey MacDonald played great as the starter when Howard initiallywent down, but he's currently sidelined with a slightly bulging disc in his back and might be done for the season.

The only coach in the history of the franchise, Trotz was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award in both 2010 and 2011 and did another fine job in 2011-12. He preaches a puck-pressure system and demands that all of his players play a 200-foot game. He holds players accountable, but, perhaps owing to his longevity, does not fly off the handle.

Mike Babcock continues to add wins to his already impressive resume, but this season has been quite a challenge -- especially on the road, where his team finished with an un-Detroit-like 17-21-3 record. The flip side, of course, is that he was heading up the bench at Joe Louis Arena during a remarkable NHL record 23-game home winning streak.
Special Teams

It's not surprising that a power-play unit featuring Weber and  Suter at the points finished as the best in the NHL, clicking at 21.7 percent of the time. Weber owns of one of the League’s hardest shots and Suter posted a career-best 39 assists.

Hornqvist creates havoc in front and is a threat to score on tips or rebounds and to screen the goalie while playing with Fisher and Erat. At times, Sergei Kostitsyn will play the point on the second unit that includes his brother, Andrei, and Radulov.

The Preds finished in the top 10 on the penalty kill and with Gaustad (top 10 in the League in faceoff percentage) and Gill (top 20 in blocked shots), the Preds hope to have beefed up that unit for the postseason.

The Red Wings started off the season quite strong with the man-advantage, but things started to backslide for their power play near the midway point and then went into a tailspin after Lidstrom got injured.

The Wings' power-play units are still pretty ineffective despite Lidstrom's return to one of the points, and it could wind up being costly in this series if they don't find a way to juice it up. Detroit finished in the League's bottom-third with a 16.1 percent conversion rate.

The penalty-kill groups, meanwhile, were quite effective to end the season despite not having Helm.  Detroit killed 81.8 percent of its man-disadvantage situations.

Series Changer

Pekka Rinne, Predators -- In the Western Conference Semifinals last season, the 6-foot-5 Rinne allowed only 13 goals in a six-game series loss to Vancouver, which eventually fell one game short of winning the Stanley Cup. If he is at the top of his game, with his long legs and quick glove, he can defeat any opponent.

Valtteri Filppula, Red Wings -- After being switched from center to the left wing next to Zetterberg, the 27-year old Finnish forward had a career-best season in terms of goals (23), assists (43) and points (66). He went through a sizeable dry spell to end the season, however, and could have a big impact on the series if he rediscovers that scoring knack.

What If ...

Predators will win if … Trotz finds the right lineup combinations and chemistry among his bottom two forward lines -- sources of experimentation down the stretch. If that happens, the Predators will have scoring depth, grit and strong two-way play throughout the lineup. If Radulov shows up big on the big stage, as has been his modus operandi, he could make the difference.

Red Wings will win if... they can find a way to generate more offense without sacrificing defense at the other end of the rink. Howard should hold up as one of the better goalies in the entire playoff field, but his defense also needs to be top-rate for the Red Wings to advance.

Analysis by John Manasso and Brian Hedger

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