|Tomas Holmstrom and the Red Wings will open the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs against Nashville and goalie Pekka Rinne. (Photo by Getty Images) |
– For the last two years, the Red Wings had to battle perhaps its biggest challenge in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs – travel.
By garnering one-point in their 3-2 shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in Saturday’s season finale for both NHL clubs, the Wings secured the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference and drawing Nashville in the opening round.
“That’s great and we don’t have to travel across the country, which to me is the biggest thing,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “Every matchup in the league is tough so to me the less travel you have the better off you are.
“We know Nashville good, they know us good, it’ll be fun going down to their building, it’s always exciting down there, we’ve played some good games in there this year, so that should be a lot of fun.”
The Predators are the No. 4 seed and will host the Wings in the first two games of the series at Bridgestone Arena next week. Game 1 will be either Wednesday or Thursday. The complete schedule will be released by the league Sunday afternoon.
The Predators will be a tough test for the Wings, who split the season series with their Central Division rivals. The Preds boasted their lineup with the acquisitions of defenseman Hal Gill, center Paul Gaustad and forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov, who returned to Nashville last month after spending the last three seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
“Obviously, Gill and Gaustad give them big bodies, and description guys that they have a role on the penalty kill and face-offs in particular,” Babcock said. “But no one talks about Kostitsyn. The best deal was for Kostitsyn, he’s a heavy body with skill and so that makes them deeper. But I think when we get our people back we’re pretty deep, too.”
While the Wings have gotten most of their injured players back in the lineup – only center Darren Helm
(knee) remains sidelined – many of them haven’t returned to 100 percent, Babcock said. And while it was unfortunate that the team had to withstand injuries to so many key pieces, including Pavel Datsyuk
, Nicklas Lidstrom
, Jonathan Ericsson
and Jimmy Howard
, many of them returned with a handful of games left late in the season that they could use to get back to game-shape.
“I think we play hard, but we don’t score like we did at all,” Babcock said. “But I think when these guys who have been out get playing like they can, I think we’re through this now, but we need Helmer back for sure. I think that will be a big boost for us. We’re not near as deep and the energy level from our bottom six isn’t even close.”
The Wings will definitely need a solid penalty kill unit to go up against the league’s most potent power play. The Predators are operating at a 21.7 percent pace with the man-advantage.
“It's going to be extremely tough, not much room out there for anybody,” Howard said. “They've gotten a lot better up front. Getting Radulov was a game-breaker. We have to be aware when he's on the ice. He's so good from the hash marks in. When he has the puck on the stick it's tough to get it away from him, he's like Pav in many ways. It's going to be a fun series.”
But to make it fun, the Wings must break out of a recent goal-scoring drought, one that has seen them produce just nine goals in regulation in the last six games.
“I think you get concerned with lots of things,” Babcock said. “We haven’t given up a whole bunch, even through the times we didn’t win, we didn’t give up a whole bunch, which is a positive thing for us, that’s how you win in the end.
“The other thing that has been real positive is the penalty kill has been so good since we got Big E and Howie back down the stretch here and we feel real good about that part of our game and we’re going to need against Nashville’s power play.”
It will be the third time that the two clubs have faced in a playoff series. The Wings won both previous first-rounds series against Nashville, doing so in six games in 2004 and again in ’08.
This will be just the third time since 1991 that the Wings will open the playoffs on the road. The last time was two years ago when they began at Phoenix.
However, the road was very friendly this season for the Wings, who posted a 17-21-3 mark, just the second losing road record for the franchise in the last 21 seasons.
“We just got to go down and win games there,” center Henrik Zetterberg
said. “We wanted to have home ice, we're pretty good at home. We play good in their building. It's a loud building, it's a lot of fun. It’s going to be a challenge for us.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose