The 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us, and by the end of it you'll feel like The Walking Dead. Hence, zombie motif!
Midway through the season, Nashville Predators' GM David Poile reached a crossroads. He could either trade Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, knowing full well he might be unable to retain them both come July, or he could hold on to them and go all-in for a Cup run in the hopes of convincing the pair that the organization was interested in winning. He chose the second option.
The Predators are all-in this postseason, having brought Alexander Radulov back from Russia, traded a first-round pick for Paul Gaustad, reunited the Kostitsyns, and brought in Hal Gill for defensive insurance. More than any other team, this group is ostensibly Going For It, and thus far, they've been rewarded for their gusto with home-ice advantage in the first round.
That said, if there's one thing I've learned from South Park, it's that you can hardly call a matchup with the Detroit Red Wings a reward. They are, to put it mildly, quite good.
This Predators team is better than last year's team, which saw the second round for the first time in Predators history, but with Detroit standing in the way, there's no guarantee that Nashville won't return to its one-and-done ways.
Here's the breakdown of the Predators and Red Wings, complete with Zombified observations …
Nashville Predators (4) vs. Detroit Red Wings (5)
April 11: Detroit at Nashville, 8 p.m. ET
April 13: Detroit at Nashville, 7:30 p.m. ET
April 15: Nashville at Detroit, 12 p.m. ET
April 17: Nashville at Detroit, 7:30 p.m. ET
April 20: Detroit at Nashville, 8 p.m.* ET
April 22: Nashville at Detroit, TBA*
April 24: Detroit at Nashville, TBA*
The Red Wings employ the incredible Pavel Datsyuk, who already embarrassed both Shea Weber and Ryan Suter in the same game once each this season. When this guy's on, he's nigh unstoppable. He usually plays on a line with Johan Franzen and Todd Bertuzzi, two big, skilled men who create a ton of space for him.
But that's the Red Wings' second line. Their top line consists of Henrik Zetterberg, Valteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler, a trio that's been lights out the back half of the season after starting slow. The Red Wings' top six is as good as anybody's in the West.
The Predators are much more of a scoring committee, with forwards such as David Legwand, Patric Hornqvist, Mike Fisher, Sergei and Andre Kostitsyn, Martin Erat, and Craig Smith. All are capable scorers, yet none really standing out as the de facto leader.
Could Alexander Radulov, fresh from his defection to the KHL, take over that role? He looked good in his brief stint to end the regular season. If he can keep it up, the Predators might have an answer for Datsyuk.
ADVANTAGE: RED WINGS.
Nicklas Lidstrom continues to be one of the league's best defensemen, although he's begun to regress a little. He had 34 points in 70 games this season, his lowest scoring total since 1994-95.
Still, he's the leader of the Red Wings' defensive corps, and he continues to make those around him better. Most notably, Ian White, who has surprised everyone this season by looking comfortable in the place of the retired Brian Rafalski.
That said, between Lidstrom's step backward and White's inexperience, the Red Wings' top pairing is potentially exploitable for the first time in years. White's postseason experience is limited to last year's run to the Western Conference final with the Sharks, when he wasn't playing the pivotal role he'll have to play here. The Predators will likely be dumping the puck into his corner relentlessly. White's comfort level could be a major storyline in this series.
After this pairing, Wings' leading defensive scorer and renowned bone-rattler Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart are a strong second duo.
The Predators are led by the twin beast that is Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, in this man's opinion the best defense pairing in the NHL. They do everything well. They lead the rush, they quarterback the power play, they shut down the opposition's top lines, and they bring toughness, strength, stability and character to their team.
Weber has surpassed Nicklas Lidstrom as a blue liner over the past two seasons, and you could also make a case that Ryan Suter is a better defenseman than he is. That's remarkable.
The skill level drops off below Weber and Suter, but the Predators still have some serviceable albeit inexperienced defenders in Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Kevin Klein. Looking at that group, there's no question that Hal Gill was acquired for his postseason experience as much as his depth. Josi and Ellis will be playing in the NHL playoffs for the first time in their careers. Expect the Red Wings to test their readiness often.
When the Zombie Apocalypse happens, Nicklas Lidstrom will be the Red Wings survivor. If you can last 19 seasons in the NHL, you can handle one piddly Z-day. (Runner-up: Todd Bertuzzi, who knows a thing or two about headhunting.)
When the Zombie Apocalypse happens, Shea Weber will survive. Did you see his beard last year? The man clearly has mountain man genes.
Pekka Rinne lead the league in wins, with 43. His GAA of 2.39 was 14th in the league, but his SV% of .923 was seventh. His glove hand is among the best in the league.
Jimmy Howard's .920 SV% placed him 10th among goalies, and his GAA of 2.13 was sixth. His 35 wins were fifth in the league, which is especially remarkable since he only played 57 games, 16 fewer than Rinne.
Both are among the league's elite at the position and will likely be nominated for the Vezina several times before their careers are through. This one's a sawoff.
The Red Wings are the zombies from Thriller. They're classic, they're smooth, they're completely in synch, and led by a man wearing all red.
The Predators are that zombie that's just sitting in the church in a stupor, facing the pulpit. They're just there, sitting back, and then someone makes the mistake of walking in and saying "Hello?" like an idiot and then suddenly they turn around in the pew all creepy and whatnot.
What we have here are two of the league's most respected, tenured coaches. Mike Babcock has won a Stanley Cup, and he's kept the Red Wings humming as one of the top teams in the NHL since the lockout. There is no coaching matchup in which one could ever say he's overmatched.
Meanwhile, Barry Trotz is coming off what may have been his best season ever. He's the only coach the Predators have ever had, a completely remarkable and completely deserved feat. He too is among the coaching elite and it would be unfair to claim either of these guys had the upper hand.
The Predators had the best power play in the NHL this season, converting on 54 of 250 opportunities, or 21.6 percent. That's what happens when you have Shea Weber and Ryan Suter back there. The duo combined for a whopping 47 power play points, only five fewer than the Sedin twins. Nashville's penalty kill was 10th at 83.6 percent.
The Red Wings' power play was uncharacteristically ineffective this year, with only 48 goals on 298 opportunities, good for a 22nd-ranked 16.1 percent. Detroit's penalty kill was similarly mediocre, at only 81.8 percent, 18th in the league. That doesn't bode well in this matchup.
Neither does this: Among playoff teams, only the Philadelphia Flyers saw more power play opportunities. The Red Wings get calls. But if they're getting them, so will the Predators, and if this becomes a special teams battle, the Red Wings lose.
To beat the Predators, you keep the game at even-strength and keep the pace up. Five-on-five, Nashville has a tendency to get outplayed. It remains a team that scores off turnovers and errors, and if you can play a smart, disciplined, possession game, much of what it does can be neutralized.
To beat the Red Wings, you slow the game down, you force those turnovers, and you manage your gap control. Also, preventing Pavel Datsyuk from going off is exceedingly helpful.
Predators in 7. This is going to be a tight series with a little bit of everything. We'll see the Predators grind a few out. We'll see a game get away from them as the Red Wings' offensive stars go off. We'll see Jimmy Howard and Pekka Rinne steal a game apiece. But when it comes down to it, the Predators have a decisive edge on special teams, and I think it will be the difference in this series.
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