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April 9, 2012
NHL Playoffs, First Round
Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Red Wings

by Robert Vollman


How important is puck possession? While Nashville improved their team considerably at the trade deadline, they're still one of the league's worst puck possession teams facing off against one of the league's best. They're also a franchise without any history of postseason success (barring what was essentially a bye in the opening round last season) facing off against the most-storied NHL franchise of the past 20 years. Will their goaltending, special teams play, home ice advantage, and a healthy serving of good fortune be enough to overcome the Red Wings?

Even Strength

At even strength, Detroit has the third-best close-game puck possession rate in the league (behind St. Louis and Pittsburgh), taking 54.3% of all attempted shots—we look at close game situations only to eliminate the influence of score effects. This is consistent with Detroit's play, which has seen them lead the league twice, and hasn't seen them dip below eighth place and 52.0% since the statistic has been closely measured in 2007-08.

On the other hand, Nashville has the second-worst possession rate in the league, their 46.1% percentage better than only the Minnesota Wild this season, and not much better than the truly horrible Anaheim Ducks team they faced last year (45.7%).

A closer look by Dirk Hoag at On The Forecheck revealed that opponent's dominance over Nashville didn't change after the trade deadline, and was this consistently bad throughout the entire season. The Predators made it work by relying on an unusually high shooting percentage, Vezina-caliber goaltending and exceptional special teams play. This series will be a truly fascinating clash of styles, and a great anecdotal snapshot on the value of puck possession in today's NHL.

Nashville Offense vs. Detroit Defense

Nashville Predators Offense: +13.8 GVT (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Detroit Red Wings Defense GVT: +19.2 (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Detroit Red Wings Goaltending GVT: -0.9 (Rank: 15th in NHL)
Total: Nashville Predators, -4.5 GVT

Nashville's a completely different team from the one that faced Anaheim and Vancouver last year. Gone is their leading scorer Joel Ward (13 points in 12 games), leading defenseman scorer Cody Franson (six points in 12 games), and supporting cast like Marcel Goc, Shane O'Brien, Blake Geoffrion, Matthew Lombardi, Steve Sullivan, and J.P. Dumont.

Instead, they've been well-replaced with Sergei Kostitsyn's brother Andrei (12 points in 19 games), giants Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad, depth player Brandon Yip, and a whole lot of blue chip rookies, including Craig Smith, Roman Josi, Gabriel Bourque, and Ryan Ellis.

Of course, the biggest addition is Alexander Radulov, until recently the best non-NHL player in the world, with a potential upside of 35 goals and 90 points over a full season. He has seven points in nine NHL games this year, and five goals and eight points in his 10 career playoff games, and could easily be a game changer—pick him early in your draft if you like to gamble (you'll probably be left to bag supplementary Predators in the late rounds).

Even with Radulov, it may not seem like Nashville has a top-10 offense given that their leading scorer Martin Erat had just 58 points, and that only two Predators managed even 20 goals, but their 10.3% shooting percentage was the league's third best, and they had 10 forwards with at least 10 goals (but Detroit had 11).

Their leading goal scorer was former 30-goal man Patric Hornqvist with 27, and pricey two-way veteran Mike Fisher managed his fifth 20-goal campaign since the lockout with 24—only 54 others have accomplished this feat, including opponents Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who have done it seven and six times respectively.

Facing them is Detroit's top pairing Nicklas Lidstrom with Ian White, followed by Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall. Up front expect to see their famed dynamic duo of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who will get the tough faceoff draws, winning 56.2% of the time. When the game is tight, they'll be supported by Valtteri Filppula, Johan Franzen, Todd Bertuzzi, and maybe Jiri Hudler. Given Detroit's depth and lack of weak links, it's truly curious why they've struggled on the road.

In nets, Detroit has little to offer—head-to-head against Nashville, they managed save percentages of just .908 (Jimmy Howard) and .902 (Joey MacDonald). Howard recently got back from a groin injury and while he doesn't seem like the type of guy to catch fire in the postseason and steal a series, he does have a .919 save percentage in 23 games, good for fifth among active players with at least 10 games post-lockout (behind Jonas Hiller, Tim Thomas, Dwayne Roloson, and Jaroslav Halak).

Advantage: Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Offense vs. Nashville Defense

Detroit Red Wings Offense GVT: +20.8 GVT (Rank: 7th in NHL)
Nashville Predators Defense: -1.0 GVT (Rank: 15th in NHL)
Nashville Predators Goaltending: +13.3 GVT (Rank: 6th in NHL)
Total: Detroit Red Wings, +8.5 GVT

The recently-acquired giant defensive specialists Paul Gaustad, who finally gives Nashville a faceoff specialist (57.3%), and Hal Gill join Nashville's famous shutdown pair Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, and key defensive veterans Mike Fisher and Martin Erat, to lead a pretty responsible defensive line-up—you also want to keep an eye on underrated and unknown defensive-styled checker Nick Spaling.

The question is—on whom should they focus? Most of Detroit's big names had off seasons. Henrik Zetterberg had an amazing 26 shots against Nashville this year, but had his second-lowest scoring season since the lockout, and his 22 goals are the second fewest in his entire career. Megastar Pavel Datsyuk dipped below 20 goals for the first time in eight seasons, Todd Bertuzzi failed to score even 40 points for the first time since the late 90s (if you ignore his 15-game 2006-07 season), and Nicklas Lidstrom had his lowest scoring full season ever with 34 points.

Instead, the Predators may zone in on Detroit's newer offensive engineers, especially Valtteri Filppula, who enjoyed career highs in goals (23), assists (43), points (66), and plus-minus (+18). Johan Franzen was also at or near career highs in all categories, and had a monster 59 points in 51 playoff games from 2007-08 to 2009-10. Then there's Jiri Hudler, whose 23 even-strength goals tied for 21st in the league, and were far more than Tomas Holmstrom, who had just a single even-strength goal in 74 games this year, while becoming one of the most carefully sheltered forwards in the league, kept to just a handful of even-strength minutes in the offensive zone.

This depth of offensive talent may give the Predators fits at home, and on the road, Detroit will be able to key in on Nashville's more defensively vulnerable younger players, and potentially run and gun with their high-flying offensive-minded Europeans like Patric Hornqvist and Alexander Radulov.

Either way, the Predators will be relying on their key weapon Pekka Rinne, who outscored Sabres defenseman Robyn Regehr this year, and had a save percentage of .920 in all six games against Detroit. Anders Lindback has an upper body injury, but he's about as likely to play as the kid who mows my lawn anyway.

Advantage: Detroit Red Wings

Nashville Power Play vs. Detroit Penalty Kill

Nashville Predators Power Play: +12.4 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Detroit Red Wings Penalty Kill GVT: -6.8 (Rank: 23rd in NHL)
Total: Nashville Predators, +17.2 GVT

Surprise—Nashville has the league's best power play. Everyone knows that they have that incredible Suter/Weber pairing on defense, but players like Patric Hornqvist, Martin Erat, David Legwand, and Mike Fisher sure don't make opponents wet their skates—nor do kids like Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, and Ryan Ellis.

Nevertheless, the Predators got results this year, finishing with the highest power play percentage in the league, boosted at the end from KHL star Alexander Radulov, and the reunited Kostitsyn brothers (the Brostitsyns).

To make matters worse, penalty killing is where their recent injuries have hurt Detroit the most, with Patrick Eaves out, Darren Helm and Daniel Cleary on the mend, leaving just Drew Miller and maybe Justin Abdelkader up front. Fortunately, their blue line is intact, with Babcock showing a slight preference for Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall over Nicklas Lidstrom and Jonathan Ericsson.

There's no doubt that Nashville has a clear advantage in special teams, but that advantage is minimized by being a low-event team, in the bottom 20% of the league in both penalties taken and drawn, combined with the historical postseason tradition of officials generally leaving their whistles in their pockets.

Advantage: Nashville Predators

Detroit Power Play vs. Nashville Penalty Kill

Detroit Red Wings Power Play GVT: -7.8 (Rank: 27th in NHL)
Nashville Predators Penalty Kill: +1.7 GVT (Rank: 10th in NHL)
Total: Detroit Red Wings, -6.1 GVT

Detroit's once feared power play, which features Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, and Jiri Hulder up front and Nicklas Lidstrom, Ian White, and Niklas Kronwall on defense, has become one of the league's oldest and weakest. It had the 22nd-worst conversion rate in the league, and also gave up 11 short-handers.

To make matters worse for them, they'll be lining up against an already strong penalty killing squad that features the deadly Shea Weber/Ryan Suter pairing, further bolstered by short-handed specialists Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad. Even if the Red Wings were to flop around like last year's Canucks, it shouldn't cost the Predators this year.

Advantage: Nashville Predators

Season Series Results

The two divisional rivals split the season series at three games apiece, with every game decided in regulation time, and Detroit outscoring Nashville 16-14.

Nevertheless, Nashville gets the edge because home ice is the key, because while Detroit has been virtually unbeatable at home this year, they had the second-worst road record of any playoff team (to Washington) at 17-21-3.

The home ice advantage also allows Nashville to match their killer shutdown defensive pairing against the players of their choice, while the addition of Hal Gill, the only Pred to have won a series over Detroit, prevents them from being completely run over in Motown.

Nashville's home ice advantage also means we'll see more Carrie Underwood and fewer octopuses, which really gives us fans the advantage.

Advantage: Nashville Predators

Injuries and Intangibles

Detroit, who has qualified for the postseason for the 21st consecutive time—the longest active streak in professional sports, clearly has history on their side. The Red Wings beat Nashville four games to two in both the opening round of 2003-04, and again in 2007-08. 10 players on Detroit's current roster have Stanley Cup rings, while Hal Gill, who won one with Pittsburgh in 2008-09, is the only Nashville Predator with one (unless someone's been shopping on eBay).

Both coaches know their own teams and their opponents extremely well, but Detroit clearly has the edge behind the bench. Not only does Mike Babcock have a 2010 Olympic Gold Medal in his cabinet, but he also has three Stanley Cup appearances (two with Detroit, one with Anaheim), and a 2007-08 Stanley Cup ring of his own (unless he sold it on eBay). He has 70 postseason coaching victories to only 42 losses, an amazing record. Barry Trotz? 14-26 and just a single series victory in seven tries.

Trotz and his team also have the added pressure of knowing what's riding on this series. They gave up a lot of future value to get the players to win now, and Ryan Suter's future with the club could very well be decided by this series.

On the other hand, Detroit's entering the postseason a little cool, having gone 7-11-4 down the stretch with an injury-riddled line-up. They recently returned to full strength, having played without critical pieces like Jimmy Howard, Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, and Johan Franzen at times, while Danny Cleary and Darren Helm are expected back soon from knee injuries—Patrick Eaves is out with a concussion.

The Detroit Red Wings always have the advantage of the intangibles, so it's up to their health status, and how the Predators respond to their recent line-up changes and added pressure.

Advantage: Detroit Red Wings


Nashville Predators: +27.0 GVT (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Detroit Red Wings: +45.0 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Total GVT Difference: Detroit Red Wings, +18.0 GVT

Teams riding the percentages like Nashville can certainly sustain their play for a few more weeks, but otherwise have nowhere to go but down, and puck possession teams like Detroit are the ones that historically succeed in the postseason.

Even with home ice and a huge edge on special teams, there's still not enough reason to go against history here. While Detroit has certainly suffered first round upsets in the past, the cold analytical minds of our statistical engines don't predict one here.

Detroit Red Wings in six games

Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

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