You say it’s Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia, with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins throwing down against Flyers foes Jaromir Jagr and Claude Giroux.
We say nay.
Right seedings. Wrong conference.
When it comes to tight as can be, evenly-matched, almost certain to go seven games, no set can compare to the Western Conference series between the fourth-seeded Nashville Predators and fifth-seeded Detroit Red Wings.
It’s a battle that will feature superstar forwards, Norris Trophy candidates on both defenses, Vezina contenders in each goal, leading to tight, defensive struggles, edge-of-your-seat drama, intrigue, even a hint of espionage.
This will be playoff hockey at its most unpredictable best.
“We know Nashville good, they know us good,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said.
The Wings and Predators are divisional rivals with a playoff history against each other. One is a storied former champion, holding firm against an up-and-coming contender that looks to be ready to take the next step forward.
“I think we’ve been building the last couple of years,” said Barry Trotz, coach of the Predators. “Stabilizing the franchise was priority No. 1. We’ve done that in Nashville. We’re a real stable franchise; we’re selling out most every night. We’ve got a good, young team.”
Driving down the stretch, Nashville moved to ramp up its speed, size, skill, and compete level.
“It makes them deeper,” Babcock said. “Obviously, Gill and Gaustad give them big bodies, and description guys in that they have a role on the penalty kill and faceoffs in particular. But no one talks about (Andrei) Kostitsyn. To me, 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.”
Slowly, Detroit, at one time minus seven regulars due to injury, is regaining its health. Only checking center Darren Helm, down with a left knee sprain, remains on the sideline, but he’s a key element. Perhaps the fastest skater in the NHL, Helm brings energy and keys Detroit’s penalty kill, which will play a huge role, since the Predators were the NHL’s most dominant regular-season power-play unit, clicking at 21.6 percent.
Yet even though they have gotten most of their talent back, the Wings still haven’t looked like the Wings of late, and it’s been key players who were out — center Pavel Datsyuk, their most skilled forward, seven-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and goaltender Jimmy Howard, who was on pace to break the NHL single-season record for wins before being idled twice by groin ailments. The concern is whether they’ll be healed enough to be firing on all cylinders as the playoffs get underway.
Naturally, these physical breakdowns have once again led to suggestions that the Wings are showing their age, and are ripe for the picking.
That being said, even Babcock had to admit that this is a team that has at times lost its edge. The Wings set an NHL record this season with 23 home-ice wins, but were erratic on the road, where they will open the playoffs for just the second time in 20 years.
“I don't think what we've seen on a consistent basis has been good enough here in the last while,” Babcock acknowledged. “I think we play hard, but we don't score like we did at all. But I think when these guys who have been out get playing like they can, I think we’ll be fine.”
Will they, though? That’s the most pertinent question entering this series. Is there still enough in Detroit’s tank to get the job done over the long haul?
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