DETROIT – The road isn’t where the Detroit Red Wings want to start the playoffs.
But it’s looking more and more like that’s where their quest for a 12th Stanley Cup in franchise history is going to begin after dropping a critical game to the Nashville Predators Friday night at Joe Louis Arena, 4-1.
The win moves the Predators (98 points) into the fourth seed in the Western Conference, a point ahead of Detroit in the Central Division.
Both teams have four games left in the regular season.
“I think we knew what was at stake coming in and right now we’re on the road for the first two games,” said goalie Jimmy Howard, who made 23 saves. “We’ve got to find a way in the last four to get back on top here.”
The Wings, who split the six-game season series with the Predators, have homes games with Florida, New Jersey and Chicago, sandwiched between a road game at St. Louis.
Nashville has homes games left with Chicago, Minnesota and Dallas before closing the regular season on the road in Colorado.
“We have four more games here to get that figured out and we’ll be ready to go by the playoffs,” Henrik Zetterberg said. “We got a lot of scoring chances. We hit the post, I missed the open net, but Pekka Rinne was good. He made some good saves in some key moments. We knew he was a good goalie.”
Rinne made 31 saves for Nashville, which got goals from Gabriel Bourque, Francis Bouillon, Alexander Radulov and Shea Weber.
Jiri Hudler spoiled Rinne’s bid for a fifth shutout of the season, scoring with 3:03 left in the third period.
“It doesn’t mean anything right now,” said Weber, who scored an empty-net goal. “It gives us some confidence that we can come in here and win. If we don’t win against Chicago (Saturday), we’ll be back in the same situation with Detroit right on us.”
The loss also eliminates the Wings’ chances of winning the Central Division.
Nashville still has a slim shot at catching St. Louis for the division crown. The Blues have 106 points with four games left on their schedule.
The Blackhawks, who also has four games left, is just two points behind Detroit.
“The score wasn’t flattering for us,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “I thought we did lots of good things. It was kind of like the game that I expected. I didn’t think there would be much room for either team and I didn’t think there was.”
Howard, who has played in just nine of the last 26 games, is now 1-5-2 since returning from a broken index finger. He has also been sidelined two different times with a strained groin since retuning.
“We’ve got to play Howie lots,” Babcock said. “I don’t know if he’ll play all four, but he’s playing three for sure, whether he plays the back-to-back I don’t know. We’ve got to get him to the highest possible level and just overall.”
The win was also the Predators’ 500th in franchise history, along with coach Barry Trotz, who is the only coach Nashville has had.
Trotz is just the fifth coach to reach 500 wins with a single franchise.
“A great accomplishment, all of us are proud of him for what he did,” said Predators forward David Legwand, who has been there from the start with Trotz.
The Predators scored three times in a span of just under 16 minutes before the midway point of the second period.
They got on the board first with just over seven minutes left in the second period.
Jordin Tootoo raced to keep a puck in the Wings’ zone and fed it to Bourque, who got a shot through a screen to beat Howard.
The Predators went up 2-0 with 33 seconds left in the period.
Danny Cleary failed to clear a puck and a mad scramble ensued in front of Howard moments later. Bouillon dug out the loose puck and wristed a shot top shelf and just inside the goal post.
Radulov all but iced the game early in the third period, finding a seam through the middle and banging home a pass from Andrei Kostitsyn after he came out from behind the Wings’ goal.
“I thought it was one of those games when you score first you get a little bit better,” Babcock said. “When the game got to be two I didn’t think we had much opportunity and obviously the mistake that we made on the third one. I thought the second goal we had poor D-zone coverage. It was after a power play when we were real good; it was poor D zone coverage and they scored on it. Then it was the same thing on the third goal.”
A minute after failing behind 1-0, Detroit failed to convert on back-to-back power plays. Henrik Zetterberg had the best chance on the second man advantage, but Rinne reached behind to close off a wide open net and grab the shot of the Wings forward.
The Wings’ power play had gone 4-for-10 over its last two games.
Detroit had a couple of nice scoring chances on its first power play of the game, the best coming when Nicklas Lidstrom rang one off the post to the left of Rinne. The puck however shot right back out and underneath the Predators’ netminder and he covered up with 40 seconds left in the Wings’ man advantage.