Predators, Red Wings headed in separate directions after series
The Detroit Red Wings said all the right things before their must-win Game 5 battle with the Predators.
"We need a strong start."
"We have to make better decisions with the puck."
"We need to create more second and third chances."
"We have to play desperate hockey."
What they delivered, however, was something else entirely. And that's why the Wings were the first team eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs after being beaten by Nashville, 2-1.
Don't let that score fool you. This game was dictated by the Predators from the start, and they were full value for the win.
The Wings, meanwhile, will be left to explain how they could have failed so miserably.
Strong start? How about a Daniel Cleary penalty just 15 seconds into the game? How about just eight shots in the first, seven from locations that that bordered on the 931 area code?
Better decisions? The Wings, so proud of their puck possession game, offered up more giveaways than a Saturday morning stroll at Costco. Between Nashville's aggressive forecheck and its own lack of discipline, Detroit lost the puck 23 times on the night, compared to just 12 for the Predators.
Second and third chances? They generated plenty of those in Games 3 and 4 by setting the GPS for the crease and driving the net full-speed, but failed to finish. Tonight? They either couldn't get past the wall of perfectly positioned defenders, or didn't have the will to pay the price. The Red Wings' lone tally, a goalmouth tap-in scored by Jiri Hudler at 13:45 of the second, was the blueprint of how they needed to play the rest of the night, but it was Nashville that made the adjustments and kept a very passive group of Wings at bay.
Even the players who usually thrive on the greasy game left the rink with clean sweaters. Tomas Holmstrom failed to get a shot on net and was a non-factor in 10 minutes. Johan Franzen was content to fling a trio of weak-wristers from the side boards that had as much chance of getting by Rinne as a medicine ball. Todd Bertuzzi was spotted scowling on the bench ... reportedly.
Desperate? Over the last three minutes as they fought to tie it up, sure. They generated a decent cycle and even forced the Preds to scramble briefly. Didn't quite make up for the feckless 57 minutes prior, though. And after launching at least 70 shot attempts in Games 3 and 4, they were held to just 48 in Game 5. Only four of those came from within 20 feet of Pekka Rinne. That's not the recipe for winning playoff hockey.
There'll be plenty of knee jerking in Motown, but one thing is clear: the Red Wings are a team in decline. Since capturing their last Cup in 2008, they lost in the Finals, were dispatched twice in the second round and now have been sent packing after the first round. They're aging in key positions, and are improperly staffed in others. And that's why the shake up is inevitable.
Know this: GM Ken Holland isn't going anywhere. Neither is coach Mike Babcock.
But changes are coming to Detroit.
And it might start with Nick Lidstrom.
The living legend looked every bit his age in the series, the first of the 47 in his brilliant career to which he didn't contribute even a single point. The right ankle might have been bothering him more than he let on, but he was barely noticeable during his 22-plus minutes of ice time ... and not in that good "he was quietly efficient" way.
Lidstrom has said he'll let the team know in the next month or so if he plans to continue his Hall of Fame career, and there's a good chance he will. The Wings have to hope so. Without him, they are a decidedly less attractive option for any of the key free agents they'll need to sign this summer.
Even if he stays, some veterans may as well start packing now. The 39-year-old Holmstrom had just 11 goals this season, and only one in this series. Brad Stuart is hoping to head back to the West Coast to finish off his career. Jiri Hudler is likely to be replaced by a cheaper farmhand.
That might not be all. Both of the top two lines could use a scoring forward with a little jam who can fight through the battles along the boards. The third line can bang, but lacks an offensive threat. And if anything was apparent in this series it's that the Wings need a fourth line rebuilt around a trio of junkyard dogs. When this team looked down the bench for a someone to ramp up the energy, it saw Cory Emmerton.
It all sets up a very interesting summer in Detroit.
The Predators, on the other hand, are on the verge of living up to their long-gestating promise.
After watching both the Kings and Flyers fail to nail the casket lids on the Canucks and Penguins Wednesday night, the Preds played the nearly flawless game they needed to eliminate the team they were built to emulate.
This time it wasn't Rinne who slammed the door shut on Babcock's crew. After facing 84 shots in Games 3 and 4 in Detroit, the big Finn was scarcely a factor in the clincher, easily handling the timid, long-distance bids the Wings had to settle for much of the night.
Instead, Nashville relied on a reliable defensive posture and a relentless forecheck that led to all the offense it'd need.
Alexander Radulov, a creative force throughout the series, gave the Preds a 1-0 lead late in the first, converting a nifty backhand pass from David Legwand after the center had stripped the puck from Kyle Quincey.
Legwand then capitalized on another Red Wings turnover just 13 seconds into the third, one-timing a Radulov pass through a naval blockade of bodies that gave Jimmy Howard no chance on the play.
Both goals were scored five-on-five, representing another page stolen from Detroit's playbook. The Preds outscored Detroit, the league's top team at even strength, 11-4 in the series.
Nashville also got significant mileage from the smart, energetic play of their youngsters. Roman Josi was a revelation in this series, shutting down Henrik Zetterberg with his smart positioning and active stick. His perfectly executed dive to strip the puck from a breaking Gustav Nyquist in the neutral zone might have prevented an early Wings lead. Ryan Ellis was a bold and imaginative addition to the power play. Nick Spaling was dynamic on the forecheck, and spent almost as much time in Detroit's crease as did Howard. And Gabriel Bourque, a kid whose potential was diminished by scouts because of his skating, managed to get himself close enough to the net to score a team-leading three goals.
As chemistry experiments go, the Predators had the superior blend.
It's one the Red Wings would do well to emulate.