Two of the NHL’s finest teams go head to head on Thursday night, when Nicklas Lidstrom leads the Detroit Red Wings to the Music City to take on Kimmo Timonen’s Nashville Predators. The Wings’s last line of defense is superstar Dominik Hasek, who at 42 years of age improbably remains one of the NHL’s finest netminders.
And on the other side of the ice, the Predators count upon the dynamic duo of Tomas Vokoun and Chris Mason to keep the puck out of their net. Will Pavel Datsyuk and the Wings reign supreme, or will new Predators Peter Forsberg help carry Nashville to victory?
Televised live on HDNet at 8:00 pm ET, this promises to be an incredibly exciting Central Division match-up… and quite possibly a Western Conference Finals preview.
Breakdown: The Red Wings
Forwards: The key to the Wings’ offense is dynamic center Pavel Datsyuk, one of the most dynamic playmakers in the game. On the season, Datsyuk has tallied 80 points to go along with a very impressive plus-31 rating (in 73 games). And though he hasn’t picked up any points in his first few games in Motown, it’s a safe bet that trade deadline acquisition Todd Bertuzzi will get hot soon. Incredibly difficult for opposing defensemen to contain, especially with the NHL’s crackdown on obstruction and interference, Bertuzzi is an absolute force down low. Another trade deadline acquisition has paid more immediate dividends for the Wings, giving them the balanced offense they’d lacked for much of the first half. Playing alongside veteran Robert Lang, Kyle Calder has been rejuvenated in Detroit; clearly his dismal performance for the Flyers earlier this year was an aberration.
Defense: Veteran rearguard Nicklas Lidstrom is one of the NHL’s steadiest blueliners, and is once again a front-line candidate to win the Norris Trophy. He has tallied 61 points in 76 games, a strong indication of his offensive prowess. But even more impressive is Lidstrom’s play away from the puck; he has earned a stellar plus-36 rating, third-best in the entire NHL. Manning the opposite point on the power play, Mathieu Schneider provides the perfect complement to Lidstrom, his booming slap shot forcing opposing penalty-killers to give the Wings’ forwards a bit more space down low. Ageless veteran Chelios is performing above and beyond any reasonable expectations, playing nearly as well at 45 years old as he did 10 years ago. And young Niklas Kronwall continues to improve by leaps and bounds, taking a regular shift on the second power play unit and able to play in virtually all game situations.
Goaltending: It is safe to say that 42-year-old Dominik Hasek — at a salary of only $750,000 — is the biggest free agent bargain in the entire NHL. Up near the top in nearly every meaningful statistical category, Hasek has thrived playing behind the Wings’ stingy defense. The one area Hasek doesn’t shine is his save percentage, but that’s largely because the Wings have done a tremendous job reducing the number of shots he’s had to face. And if the reduced workload enables him to backstop the Wings to the Cup, that save percentage (.910, low by Hasek’s lofty standards) will be a blessing in disguise.
Breakdown: The Predators
Forwards: Veteran Paul Kariya is the glue that binds the Preds’ deep offense together. An incredibly dynamic playmaker, the versatile Kariya is devastating on the power play, where he’s tallied a team-leading 19 assists. And Peter Forsberg, with 12 points in 12 games since he was acquired from the Flyers, is quickly acclimating himself to his new home in Music City. Unfortunately, the Preds will have to make do tonight without two of their most talented forwards, Steve Sullivan and Martin Erat. Sullivan, a 2004 trade acquisition, has averaged over a point-per game this season (60 points in 57 games, plus-16 rating), while Erat was in the midst of a breakout year (57 points, plus-13 rating) when he went down with a knee sprain. And so, it’ll be up to David Legwand, Jason Arnott, and Alexander Radulov to pick up the slack. Legwand, the Preds’ first-ever draft pick, is finally delivering on his enormous potential this year, posting a team-leading plus-26 rating. Arnott’s debut campaign in Nashville has gone quite well; he’s scored 27 goals and 53 points in 62 games). But it’s Radulov who’s the wild card for the Predators. The talented rookie absolutely lit up the QMJHL last season, tallying 152 points in only 62 games for the Quebec Remparts. This year, he’s shown flashes of offensive brilliance, but even more importantly, he’s demonstrated uncanny diligence away from the puck, posting a strong plus-19 rating.
Defense: Captain Kimmo Timonen is the leader of the Nashville blue line corps, but he’s listed as day-to-day with an “upper body injury.” Look for young Shea Weber to step up in Timonen’s absence; the hard-hitting rearguard has been on fire of late, tallying 17 goals (most amongst Nashville defenseman) to go with a plus-12 rating. In fact, the Preds’ only regulars with minus ratings are their fourth-liners, a testament to the team’s tremendous defense. With Ryan Suter, Marek Zidlicky, Dan Hamhuis, and Vitali Vishnevski rounding out the bottom half of the blue line corps, the Preds are amongst the NHL’s finest at keeping the puck out of harm’s way.
Goaltending: The Preds’ last line of defense is their solid goaltending tandem of Tomas Vokoun and Chris Mason. Injuries have dogged Vokoun for much of this season, giving Mason an opportunity to shine. And a look at their stats indicates that the Preds are in fine hands whether it’s starter Vokoun (.920 SV%, 2.41 GAA) or back-up Mason (.925 SV%, 2.40 GAA) between the pipes.
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Thursday, March 29, Detroit @ Nashville, 8:00pm ET
Saturday, March 31, Dallas @ Nashville, 8:00pm ET