Nashville sports fans have traditionally had three things to discuss in the spring: the start of baseball season, the upcoming NFL draft and who the Titans might pick, and all the various happenings at football spring practice at Vanderbilt and the other Southeastern Conference schools.
Recently, though, there’s been a fourth topic that’s had Nashvillians buzzing this time of year: playoff hockey.The Predators have now made the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons including this one, and tonight, Nashville faces off against its biggest rival, the Detroit Red Wings, at Bridgestone Arena.
To preview the playoffs, Sports and Entertainment Nashville Magazine reached out to Willy Daunic, a sports talk host at 102.5 The Game and one of the foremost experts on Predators hockey, for his thoughts on the upcoming series.
This time, it’s different
The Predators and Detroit have met in the playoffs twice before, and to be honest, the Predators and their fans were probably just happy to be in the same arena against the team that is essentially to hockey what the Yankees are to baseball. Daunic reflects on those first two series, which came in 2004 and 2008.
“In ’04, it was before the salary cap, and it was the first time the Predators have made the playoffs. It was the Predators’ sixth year of existence, and they had a payroll, I think, of $21 million. The Red Wings had a payroll of $72 million, or something like that, so the gap was unbelievable,” Daunic recalled.
“The Red Wings had Hall of Famers up and down the lineup, and the Predators were really just coming out of the expansion time. They didn’t really have a whole a lot – maybe their first few draft classes, just enough to help them out.”
Still the Predators managed to win a pair of games against the Central Division champions.
The next time, the Predators were the 8-seed facing the eventual Stanley Cup winners, but managed to win a pair of games that season, too.
“That was after the purge that (former owner) Craig Leipold had after he sold the team,” Daunic remembers. “They had lost a lot of their top players like Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen and Paul Kariya and Tomas Vokoun, guys that were really good for them. They had a make-shift young group and just making the playoffs for them was great that year.”
But this season, Nashville finished ahead of Detroit for the first time in history.
“This series is a total toss-up. You have a lot of people who are actually picking the Predators in this,” Daunic says.
Keys for the Predators
The regular season established that the Predators are capable of beating Detroit; after all, Nashville finished two points ahead of the Red Wings and played Detroit to a 3-3 draw in the six meetings between the two teams this year. But playoff hockey can be a different game, and here are the three keys for Nashville in the series as Daunic sees them:
1. Special teams play. While Detroit has traditionally been strong on the power play, the Red Wings didn’t perform as well in that area this season, and the Predators could have an edge there.
“I think the No. 1 thing for Nashville is their improved special teams play, particularly their power play. I think their Achilles ’ heel the last two years they’ve been in the playoffs is their power play just hasn’t been able to generate a big goal or two at key times in the game,” Daunic says.
“This year, they have the No. 1 power play in the NHL. So, everybody’s kind of wondering if they can carry that over to the playoffs.”
2. What will the Preds get from Alexander Radulov?
The dynamic forward played with Nashville from 2006 to 2008, then left to play professionally in Russia. Radulov, still under contract with the Predators, returned to Nashville for the final nine games of this season and scored seven points after his season overseas ended.
On a team where scoring is spread around, Radulov’s presence could be what gets Nashville over the hump.
“He’s a difference-maker they really haven’t had in a playoff series before – a guy who can just sort of make a big play out of nothing. He’s got a chance to do that. Sometimes when you’re in a really tight game and you’re down by a goal and you just have to have a goal, he’s the kind of guy who can make a big play. They really haven’t had that before,” Daunic said.
3. Youth vs. experience. Take a look at each team’s roster, and you’ll see a big difference. Seven of the Predators’ 26 players are 30 or older, with only two being over 32. Eleven of Detroit’s 26 are over 30, with seven being at least 32.
“The youth exuberance (of the Predators) vs. the savvy veteran Wings who have all kinds of experience and all kinds of Stanley Cup winners (is a storyline),” Daunic says. “They’ve got 10 guys who’ve been on one or more Stanley Cup winners.”
Players to watch
Additionally, Daunic thinks these five players are key in the series’ outcome:
1. Hal Gill, Nashville. At 37, Gill is the oldest Predator, and was attained in a late-season move specifically to add experience to the roster. But Gill has a leg injury and didn’t skate on Wednesday morning, so his status is questionable.
“Nashville has two all-world defense-men in Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, and they’re going to be out there for close to half of the game… you’ll see them out there against the big guns for the Red Wings as often as possible. But what happens when they’re not out there? That’s a big key. If Gill can’t play, that’s a concern,” Daunic says.
2. Gabriel Bourque, Nashville. At the other end of the spectrum is Nashville’s youngest player, the 21-year old rookie who had 19 points in his 43-game rookie campaign this year.
“Nashville scores by committee; they don’t rely on really one guy, but they need someone to get hot and provide a big spark. I think a guy to watch, maybe, is a rookie, Gabriel Bourque. His game, I think, translates very well to the playoffs,” Daunic says.
“But he’s very young. The question is, can he handle the pressure and the magnitude of the game in the playoffs, with all the intensity and the speed. But if he can, I think he’s the guy that can maybe score a big goal or two.”
3. Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit. The left wing led Detroit with 69 points this season.
“For years he’s been a tremendous wizard with the puck… a tremendous play-maker, a smart players who plays on both ends, offense and defense,” Daunic says.
4. Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit. Despite missing a dozen games, Datsyuk led Detroit with 48 assists and ranked second with 66 points.
“He’s outstanding, he’s been hurt some, but if he’s 100 percent, he’s really tough to stop. He’s a game-breaker, he can make something out of nothing,” Daunic says.
5. Johan Franzsen, Detroit. At 6-foot-3 and 223 pounds, Detroit’s right wing is appropriately nicknamed “The Mule.” He led Detroit with 11 power play goals and ranked fourth with 56 points.
“He’s so big, he parks himself in front of the goal and he’s just a classic power forward. He gets rebounds, he’s strong, he’s tough to move around when he’s down low.”