DETROIT – These aren’t your same old Predators the Detroit Red Wings will face in the first round of the NHL playoffs beginning Wednesday night in Nashville.
The Predators were busy at the trade deadline adding skilled forward Andrei Kostitsyn, fourth-line center Paul Gaustad (6-5) and stay-at-home defenseman Hal Gill (6-7). They also got highly skilled forward Alexander Radulov back from Russia.
“They’ve added pieces for sure, but the way they play is very similar, they play with more skill in the offensive zone, they handle the puck a little more,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “They still get through the neutral zone. Their three best players are still the same, but they added significant pieces.
“Radulov and Kostitsyn are good players,” Babcock added. “Gill is a real good penalty killer and playoff performer and Gaustad is a good faceoff guy, so those are all dimensions to your team. As long as everything is in unison it’ll make your team better. It has to.”
Gill just added more size to the Predators’ already large backend, which is anchored by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter.
“How tall is Gill, 6-7,” Babcock asked. “What’s his weight, 241, so when he leans on you it’s over with. The great thing about being big is you’re big every shift, not once in a while. He’s a huge addition, size wise.”
The teams split the season, but Nashville won the last two meetings.
“They have a lot of elements,” Niklas Kronwall said. “They obviously have a very good net presence, but Suter and Weber up top, obviously anytime Weber gets the puck it can be dangerous. But if he’s not open, someone else is usually, because you try to take him away and that means someone else is open. They find a way to get the puck to the net and they have a lot of guys that are good at that.”
And they also have a size between the pipes in goalie Pekka Rinne.
“You don’t see a lot of net behind him,” Henrik Zetterberg said. “You just have to trust yourself that it is there and keep shooting. Be there to screen him and be there for second chances.
“He’s up there as one of the top goalies in the league,” Zetterberg added. “He’s big and plays very well. He’s very mobile. You just have to keep shooting pucks. You can’t wait for the perfect opportunity. You just have to shoot from bad angles and get there for second chances.”
Rinne led the league this year with 43 wins.
“You have to look over your shoulder more to see where he is looking, but sooner or later he might go down in a butterfly and when he’s down there he really can’t see anything,” Tomas Holmstrom said. “But he’s a really good goalie and it will be a big test to get some screens on him.”
Special teams play will be key in the series. Nashville has the league’s top ranked power play, while Detroit’s penalty kill ranked 18th at the end of the regular season.
“They’ve got the two defensemen with Weber and Suter, they move the puck and got a good shot and they have forwards that can score,” Drew Miller said. “I think our penalty killing is playing well, it’s going to be a good matchup between our penalty kill and their power play.”
The Wings have killed off 25 straight power plays over the last seven games.
“Our penalty kill has been outstanding,” Babcock said. “It really took a dip when we lost (Jimmy Howard, Jonathan Ericsson and Nicklas Lidstrom). Since those guys got back, we’ve really been rolling like crazy on it. We need it to be great in this series. It’s got to be a point of frustration. They sure frustrate our power play in practice.”
Home-ice will also play a huge role. The Wings set an NHL record with winning 23 consecutive games on home ice, but closed out going 5-5-2 at Joe Louis Arena.
Detroit was horrible on the road this season, going 17-21-3.
“We’re going to have to win some road games, we can’t live on home cooking,” Wings General Manager Ken Holland said. “We’ve gone through a lot of injuries, our guys are back and they got some games under their belt. I’d like to think because of that they got to be fresh.”
The boost from getting all their injured players should help the offense, which ranked sixth in the league with 239 goals, but struggled to find the back of the net. Since the Wings’ seven-goal outburst against Columbus on March 26, they’ve scored just 10 goals over the last six games and haven’t scored more than two goals in any game since.
“Just keep shooting the puck,” Zetterberg said. “You can’t score if you don’t shoot. They’re going to block a lot of shots. They play tight in front of (Rinne). We just have to keep firing pucks.”
Also, in three of the Wings’ last four games they’ve trailed heading into the third period. They did come away with five of a possible six points.
“I like our team,” Babcock said. “I don’t think the last 20 games, not so much the end, but the 15 games when everyone was injured, is not indicative of our team. We’re going to get tested right off the hop. We’ve had lots of good games with Nashville this year; I don’t see this being any different.”