It’s hard to imagine the Nashville Predators being anything but comfortable with their playoff fate this season. If you accept Predators head coach Barry Trotz’s assertion that all eight Western Conference playoff teams are separated by the slimmest of margins, then it stands to reason you’d prefer to face a foe with whom you’re very familiar. That’s what the Predators have in their first-round playoff opponent, the Detroit Red Wings.
“I think we’ve learned things from Detroit over the years that we have to do as a team to keep them under wraps,” Trotz said Sunday during a media event at which he answered questions about the upcoming series. “And so we have some twists to our systems, to our way we play them, [moreso] than we would maybe Dallas or someone else.”
Longtime rivals, the two Central Division clubs are an even 3-3 head-to-head this season, with the Predators winning the last two meetings. Each team has two wins and one loss on home ice, but Trotz gives little credence to there being a distinct edge for the home side. Even before the Predators clinched home-ice advantage for their first-round playoff series—which opens Wednesday night at Bridgestone Arena—Trotz repeatedly stated that he has no concerns about going into Detroit’s rink and coming out with a win.
“Early in the [season] series, I thought there was a wide margin,” Trotz said Sunday. “That was because of our youth. That was because I don’t think we had our game in order. The last few times, going into [Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena] and playing here, I think we’ve played very well. I just think the gap from Game 1 of the season to Game 82 has closed.”
Still, facing the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs can be an intimidating proposition, given the team’s history, talent and depth. The franchise has raised the Stanley Cup four times in the last 14 seasons, and as any hockey fan knows, playoff time is unlike any other. There are necessary intangibles that can only be taught or discovered during time spent in post-season play—a place where the Red Wings have taken up residence over the years.
“They’ve got some people who have some great playoff experience,” Trotz said. “People like [Niklas] Lidstrom and [Pavel] Datsyuk. Those are going to be Hall of Fame players and they are game-breakers still at this time. And they’ve gone through the wars. They have a lot of experience in that.”
The Predators have met the Red Wings twice before in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in 2004 and 2008. Nashville lost both series four games to two, but those six-game battles helped cement the long-standing rivalry between the two franchises. Now, with the 2011-12 Predators finishing atop Detroit in the Western Conference standings for the first time in franchise history, some hockey pundits wonder if this season’s results could finally upset the playoff pecking order.
“Detroit’s always been a benchmark,” Trotz said. “Not only in our division but in our whole conference. [Finishing ahead of Detroit] is another step. You get nothing for it other than peace of mind and home-ice advantage. But they’ve been an outstanding organization. They’ve been the standard of the league for a long time.
“I can tell you the gap from the last two times we’ve played them [in the playoffs] has narrowed. I know that. Going into those series, I think we were serious underdogs.”
This year the Predators seem to be working on something special, though. Trotz’s early season worries about his young, struggling lineup have been replaced by confidence in a group that hit its stride even before being bolstered by playoff-savvy veterans acquired around the trade deadline.
“Our depth is really good,” Trotz said. “I think guys are understanding how we’re going to have to play. Even when I wasn’t happy with our overall play, we seemed to win, so that’s part of being a team that finds ways to win and a team that has some depth.”
So, as opposed to the first two times Nashville and Detroit met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, this post-season’s first-round Western Conference Quarterfinal series is shaping up to be a more evenly matched, toe-to-toe battle.
“I think both teams have guys that can be difference makers in net,” Trotz said. “Both teams have difference makers on the blueline, and both teams have difference makers up front. That’s why I think it’s going to be a good series.”