NASHVILLE — Entering their Western Conference Quarterfinal series with Detroit — a team that they had not beaten in two previous postseason meetings — the Nashville Predators were confident, but not cocky.
That confidence helped them to prevail, winning the series in five short games, punctuated by Friday’s 2-1 win at Bridgestone Arena in Game 5.
The brevity of the series might have surprised some observers, coming as it did against an opponent that set an NHL record during the season for consecutive home victories with 23. Undeterred, the Preds beat Detroit both times in its own building despite never having won at Joe Louis Arena in six previous tries.
Predators coach Barry Trotz said his team had “tons of confidence” despite allowing Detroit to tie the game at 1-1 late in the second period. David Legwand scored 13 seconds into the third period for the game-winner.
In the end, the little brother that entered the NHL in 1998 finally surpassed the big brother, who is part of hockey’s royalty.
“We got tested and we got measured by the Detroit Red Wings,” Trotz said of the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and played in the final in ‘09. “… They’ve got great experience. They’ve got great character. It hasn’t really sunk in in terms of that. We feel like we used to look up at Detroit because of feeling that we were a little bit inferior because of talent or whatever it may be, might’ve been a little bit in awe of them and I think we’ve grown to the point where we have a great respect for the Detroit Red Wings, but we’re not in awe of them and I think that’s the stepping stone that we’ve taken. Obviously, beating the Detroit Red Wings in the first round is a step in the right direction for us.”
When Predators All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter was asked what he would have thought if he were told before the series that his team would win in five games, he hardly seemed surprised.
“Well, I mean, we’ve got a good group of guys here,” he said.
He, like fellow All-Star Shea Weber, pointed credit in the direction of goalie Pekka Rinne, who only allowed nine goals in the five games and stopped 102 of 106 shots he faced in the last three games of the series.
Some of the highest praise after the game came from the vanquished.
“They’ve got their top two [defensemen] are as good as — well, not many teams, I think they got three what I would call franchise players on their team in Pekka Rinne, [Shea] Weber and [Ryan] Suter,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. “I don’t know one other team that in the National League [that has that]… Those guys are top players.”
At times, Babcock was harsh in his comparison. He cited Nashville’s trade deadline acquisitions as some of the difference. He said he thought his team could keep up with Nashville until midway through Game 4 when Trotz switched up his lines to put Andrei Kostitsyn — acquired from Montreal — on the third line and promoted rookie Gabriel Bourque (team-high three goals in the series) to the second line. At that point, he said, he thought Nashville had seven top-six forwards and he was not including Bourque in that calculation.
“I just thought we didn’t have enough depth up front,” he said. “Flat out. We weren’t good enough.”
But the Preds were and the measuring stick looks good now in the Preds’ estimation.
“Yeah, they’ve been a good team for so long,” said Weber. “They’ve been in the playoffs for I don’t know how many years straight” — 21, in fact — “Everyone always looks up to them as a successful franchise and we’re trying to build something special here and hopefully we can just keep getting there.”
Detroit finished tied for the seventh-most points in the league this season — just nine fewer than the league’s top team — and yet Nashville sent them out in five quick games. The games were extremely close and only one game was decided by more than a one-goal margin. Trotz said the battles were won by inches.
Yet Babcock said such a short series could not be considered close. Weber was asked what it all meant. He believes the best is yet to come.
“It says how good our goalie is because I think we still haven’t played our best,” Weber said. “I think today was more of a step in the right direction. We played more of a solid complete game. As the playoffs go on we have to keep getting better because the teams are going to keep getting better.”