The Malik Report
by George Malik on 04/20/12 at 02:30 PM ET
Over the past few days, we’ve heard quite a bit about the Nashville Predators’ delight regarding the fact that they may very well be able to slay their self-created dragon in their arch-rival Red Wings this evening, and while that’s swell and all, it’s hard to argue that a playoff vanquishing of the “gold standard” means that your team has definitively surpassed said poster boy franchise once and for all.
That being said, I agree with SI’s Darren Eliot when he suggests that the Red Wings have run into a team that has spent the past two trade deadlines and summers very specifically building itself into a team very specifically designed to take the Wings out come playoff time, and there’s definitely something to Eliot’s theory that a team that’s embraced its identity as the Wings’ vanquisher is playing against a team that somehow lost its identity after establishing a home-ice winning streak in February—and it’s scary to watch the Predators prey upon a Wings team that doesn’t seem to understand what it takes to win against the Preds as much as Nashville knows exactly how to make Detroit lose:
To me, though, this series is about the Predators knowing who they are versus a Red Wings squad that is struggling to remember who they were. The Preds’ identity on the ice has long been one of defensive discipline and puck pursuit more than puck control. Off the ice, GM David Poile has used many of the Red Wings’ tenets to build his organization, holding them up as the model to strive for. They’ve built from within, focused on the blue line and added necessary parts along the way. Where they differ right now is that the Predators are bigger and younger up front, with more skill than at any time in their history.
Do they have a Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg? No. They do have Mike Fisher and David Legwand to match up against the Red Wings’ two pivotal pivots; with both players making it difficult on Detroit’s key cogs each and every shift. As if to summarize the individual battles and maybe even the series overall, there was a small but telling play late in Game 4, as Fisher and Datsyuk took flight in a half-ice footrace during an icing. With both men straining in equal determination, Fisher found a way to get there first and nullify the icing, forcing the Red Wings to expend extra energy and go 200 feet yet again. As has been the case throughout, the Wings regrouped and got bogged down in the neutral zone, with the Predators forcing another dump in.
Mike Babcock is right. The Predators didn’t want to spend as much time in their own zone as they did. But they were willing to do so. They had confidence in their defensive posture and ability to keep the puck mostly to the outside. What the Predators have taken away is the Red Wings’ speed on the attack through the neutral zone—the offensive MO that made Detroit the best 5-on-5 outfit in the NHL.
One could very well argue that there’s a simple reason for that—not replacing Brian Rafalski’s hurt the Wings’ transition game all season long, and losing Darren Helm and Patrick Eaves to injuries has taken an enormous amount of speed and out of the Wings’ equation…
In this series, they Predators have held the Wings to one goal per game at even strength. The Wings’ second wave on the rush that netted 44 goals from defensemen—tied for second in the NHL during the regular season—has produced but one lone tally… in their only win of the series. The Predators led the NHL in goals from their rearguards (47) and again have stayed true to form with four markers in the four games thus far—most in the playoffs.
So, there you have it: the Predators have neutralized the strengths of the Red Wings and stayed true to their identity. They’ve gotten better goaltending and scored first in all three of the wins—an area that has plagued the Wings for two months, having blinked first in 17 of their past 21 tilts.
It’s tough playing from behind, especially when the team standing in front of you knows your strengths and senses your vulnerability. The Predators are on the precipice of passing the team they’ve been chasing, on so many levels, for over a decade. On Friday in Nashville, they get their first opportunity to prove that they’ve truly arrived.
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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.