NHL Playoffs 1st Round Preview: Detroit-Nashville

The Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators have been on a collision course for the 4-5 spot in the NHL’s Western Conference playoff bracket for several weeks now, and the matchup has now officially materialized. To the casual fan, it looks like one of the game’s great franchises against an unknown who’s never made a splash. But between the boards, it’s a dead-even matchup and Nashville is the team that angled out home-ice advantage by winning 12 of its last 20, while Detroit only won seven in that same timeframe. TheSportsNotebook previews the Red Wings-Predators first-round battle…

It’s all about goaltending as two goalies that are capable of leading their team to a Stanley Cup are in net. Detroit’s Jimmy Howard has a 92 percent save rate, the equal of Boston’s Tim Thomas and right on the heels of New York’s Henrik Lundqvist. Howard missed time during that last 20-game sequence, a big reason the Red Wings struggled like they did. Nashville has Pekka Rinne, whose save rate is a nudge higher than Howard’s. It’s certainly possible that either goaltender could rise to the occasion with such an extraordinary performance that they carry their team through. More than likely that’s something the winner of this series will get a chance to do down the line. For this particular series, the excellence of Howard and Rinne likely cancels each other out and we have to look elsewhere for edges.

Both teams have well-regarded defenseman in front of the net. Nashville’s duo of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter is respected as one of the best in the league, while Detroit has defensive depth, led by the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom, who seems to be rivaled only by New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur in the “He’s Still Around” category. But while the personnel is well-regarded, the numbers tell us that Detroit’s group is much better at the job of taking care of the goalie. The Red Wings are a top five team in shot prevention, while the Predators are in the league’s bottom third. Nashville is not as deep, and it’s imperative that Detroit cash in when the second and third lines are on the ice.

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The Red Wings have the offensive talent to make that happen. There’s no budding star here, no one like a Crosby, Malkin, Stamkos or Ovechkin, who can electrify a crowd. But there’s a whole lot of players who know how to move the puck and play team offense, and none are better than Pavel Datsyuk. He’s on the front line and if he can win some battles against Weber and Suter, create some extra shots and fight out even one extra goal, that can be the difference in a series where scoring will be at a premium. Henrik Zetterberg and Valterri Filppula can also find the open man, and Johan Franzen is a decent scorer.

On the Nashville side, there’s not the same kind of offensive depth. Like Detroit, the Predators lack a 30-goal scorer, and their best is Patric Hornqvist, who had 27. David Legwood is a nice passer, but overall this is a strange offensive team. They are very poor at getting shots, but rank a solid 8th in goals scored. Normally statistical disparities like that reflect one great scorer who covers team inadequacies (Washington and Alex Ovechkin being an example). There’s nothing like that here, and frankly I’m at a loss for how to explain it, given that I refuse to believe that an 82-game body of work can be reduced to coincidence.

How this series will be officiated is going to be of enormous consequence. Nashville excels at both ends of the power play—they are the best in the league at cashing their chances in, and in the league’s upper crust at denying opponents the same. Detroit is mediocre in both areas, and with ranks of 22nd and 18th respectively, we’re probably being nice when say mediocre. The flip side to this is that the Red Wings are the NHL’s best in 5-on-5 play, while Nashville is 10th.

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I like Detroit to win this series. I believe the injury to Howard, among others in a tough last stretch of the season, are the only reason they aren’t the 4-seed to begin with and I think we’re going to see a return of the team that set the NHL record for consecutive home wins back in February. Every game will be a dogfight, and a closely officiated series with a lot of power plays can tip it the other way, but to me Detroit is the percentage pick here.