As the Red Wings and Predators prepare to drop the puck for Game One in Detroit tonight, virtually every pundit throughout the hockey world has called for a Red Wings victory, while giving nominal credit to Nashville's pluck and tenacity
for simply making the playoffs. Those platitudes are nice, but are there genuine reasons to believe that the Predators can pull off an upset over this year's Presidents Trophy winner? There are indeed...
This may well have been Nashville's motto this season...
1. The Red Wings have been in this position before and found themselves bounced out in the first round, most recently in 2006 against the Edmonton Oilers. As a #2 seed in 2003 they lost to Anaheim in the Western Conference quarterfinal, and in 2001 Los Angeles knocked them out in another #2 vs. #7 matchup. Detroit just doesn't play the favorite very well at times.
2. Across eight games between the Preds and Red Wings this year, Detroit outscored Nashville by just a 20-19 margin, with Detroit winning five of the games, two in overtime or shootout. At even strength, Nashville outscored Detroit 14-10, and players like Jason Arnott (+5) and Martin Erat (+4) fared very well against the Red Wings, while Kris Draper (-4) and Kirk Maltby (-5) failed to shut down Predator forwards. The gap between these two teams when they hit the ice is perhaps smaller than overall records would indicate.
3. Health can make for a great equalizer, and Detroit is currently working through a rash of nagging injuries that can see players dress for games, but not play at 100%. Kris Draper and Mikael Samuelsson are working through groin strains and Kirk Maltby is recovering from hamstring trouble, so all three will find it hard to keep up a fast pace for 60+ minutes of playoff hockey. For Nashville, David Legwand is the only significant missing piece right now, and there's reason to suspect that he'll return to action sooner rather than later from his bruised foot.
4. When it comes to special teams, the Detroit power play (3rd best in the NHL) will square off against an equally effective Nashville penalty kill (also 3rd best). At the opposite end, however, the Predators power play has been generally awful (26th). While Detroit's PK ranked 8th in the league, there will be pressure on Detroit to make sure they shut down the Preds when they have the man advantage. For Nashville, just about any power play goal will be seen as a bonus. With several days to prepare for a specific opponent, Barry Trotz may find a specific area of the Red Wing penalty kill that can be exploited, particularly since shorthanded specialists Draper & Maltby are hurt. Focusing on working the puck back to the point and allowing Shea Weber and Marek Zidlicky to fire away may be the best way for the Preds to take advantage there.
5. Hot young goaltenders seem to be all the rage in the Stanley Cup playoffs; Montreal is going with Carey Price this year, and in 2006 Cam Ward led Carolina to a Cup in his rookie effort. In this series we have the two extremes; for Detroit, playoff bonuses for the goalies are supplemented by Social Security benefits, while Nashville's duo can count their career playoff games on one hand. The point here is that playoff experience may not be all it's cracked up to be, and Dan Ellis' #1 ranking in Save Percentage
is not to be ignored.
Nashville also enjoys the benefit of exceeding expectations; for the Red Wings, anything short of making the Western Conference Finals would represent a disappointment, and a first-round loss would border on the insufferable. Note, for example, how many Red Wings bloggers are up in arms
over the slightest criticisms
thrown Detroit's way as the playoffs begin. As part of their job, analysts provide the pros and cons for all the teams, but when Mike Milbury questioned Detroit's ability to dominate, their bloggers were deeply offended. The Stanley Cup playoffs represent perhaps the most grueling post-season in all of sports, and that's not at all a time to be thin-skinned.