By Josh Cooper in Nashville
Since Nashville's first regular season in 1998-99, the Detroit Red Wings have been their standard - and a goal in which to strive toward.
Before this season, the Predators never finished ahead of Detroit in the regular season. This year Predators knocked the Red Wings off their perch with a 104 point season to Detroit's 102.
The Red Wings have defeated the Predators twice in the playoffs in six games. Nashville hopes that this year, third time is a charm.
The Predators used to look at the Red Wings with awe and the Stanley Cup as a pipe dream. This is no longer the case. They believe they can beat the Wings and go on a deep playoff run.
"We've gone through the experiences a little bit more," Coach Barry Trotz said. "I think we can deal with it more. You're not getting thrown off by it as we used to."
Added Trotz, "I think both teams have guys who can be difference makers in net. Both teams have difference makers on blueline and both teams have difference makers up front."
Trying to dissect both teams based on the season series is a moot point. The Red Wings went 2-1-0 in the first three games, and Nashville went 2-1-0 in the second three.
The Red Wings caught Nashville once without Shea Weber, four times without Hal Gill, and five games without Alex Radulov. The Predators acquired Gill on Feb. 17 and he didn't suit up for the Predators in their game against Detroit that day. Radulov returned from Russia with one game left against Detroit.
The Predators faced the Red Wings without Pavel Datsyuk, Todd Bertuzzi, Nicklas Lidstrom and Jimmy Howard in one game.
"Nashville finished two points ahead of us in the standings. Our season series was 3-3. As we sit here today it's a pick 'em series," Detroit General Manager Ken Holland told The Detroit News. "I expect a long series. I expect some overtime games. I expect a real close, tightly-fought series."
Both teams are near even in several major categories. The Red Wings finished seventh in offence with 239 goals. The Predators were eighth with 232 goals.
The Red Wings also finished seventh in goals against with 200. The Predators were eighth again 205 goals allowed.
"I don't think there are any underdogs or favorites," Holland added. "I think the league today is really, really close, and you have to win it on the ice. A lot of real good teams will be out after the first round."
This year, we've seen some good and bad from Detroit. The good? They set an NHL record for consecutive wins at home with 23. The bad? The Red Wings haven't won in regulation since March 26. Their last regulation win over a playoff team came March 9 against the Los Angeles Kings.
The Wings lost several players to injury in February and March, such as Datsyuk, Howard and Lidstrom, and were trying to re-integrate them into the lineup during their stretch run.
"When we're healthy, we think we're a deep team, too," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said.
The Predators are healthy right now - 100 percent with no players on injured reserve. The Predators had only 142 man-games lost due to injury or illness.
Nashville is so deep at the moment, they could start the series with 44 total goals - Craig Smith, Colin Wilson and Matt Halischuk - not on the bench.
The Predators have seven players with 40 or more points on their roster. This doesn't include Radulov, who has hit 58 points once in his career and had 37 points in 64 games as a rookie. He had seven points in nine game.
Though their offence has been better-than-expected this year, their defence is still their main ingredient. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter were a combined plus-36. Pekka Rinne led the NHL in wins with 43 and had a .923 save percentage.
"I can tell you the gap from the last two times we've played them (in the playoffs) has narrowed," Trotz said. I know that. Going into those series, I think we were serious underdogs."
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