Almost everyone, including yours truly, said that this would be a close series. On many levels it has been: three one-goal games, with Game 4 last Tuesday in Detroit ending 3-1 Nashville after starting with 40 scoreless minutes. Yet, the series tally isn't close, as the Predators hold a commanding 3-1 lead.
The easy answer is that Pekka Rinne has been the difference with his dominant, athletic goaltending each and every game. The Red Wings outshot the Preds 41-17 in Game 4 and only managed a lone power play goal by Jiri Hudler on a waist-high deflection.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock commented afterwards that he doubted the Predators strategy was to sit back and defend so close to their goal, adding, "It's hard to imagine controlling the puck as much as we have and things not going differently."
That's one view, but Babcock's remarks had a perplexed tone to them -- not as in "we should have won", but as in "we can't do much more offensively." In that sense, he is probably right. Rinne is winning the battle in goal, with Detroit's Jimmy Howard failing to make that crucial, must-have save in the past two home games -- both losses.
To me, though, this series is about the Predators knowing who they are versus a Red Wings squad that is struggling to remember who they were. The Preds' identity on the ice has long been one of defensive discipline and puck pursuit more than puck control. Off the ice, GM David Poile has used many of the Red Wings' tenets to build his organization, holding them up as the model to strive for. They've built from within, focused on the blue line and added necessary parts along the way. Where they differ right now is that the Predators are bigger and younger up front, with more skill than at any time in their history.
Do they have a Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg? No. They do have Mike Fisher and David Legwand to match up against the Red Wings' two pivotal pivots; with both players making it difficult on Detroit's key cogs each and every shift. As if to summarize the individual battles and maybe even the series overall, there was a small but telling play late in Game 4, as Fisher and Datsyuk took flight in a half-ice footrace during an icing. With both men straining in equal determination, Fisher found a way to get there first and nullify the icing, forcing the Red Wings to expend extra energy and go 200 feet yet again. As has been the case throughout, the Wings regrouped and got bogged down in the neutral zone, with the Predators forcing another dump in.
Mike Babcock is right. The Predators didn't want to spend as much time in their own zone as they did. But they were willing to do so. They had confidence in their defensive posture and ability to keep the puck mostly to the outside. What the Predators have taken away is the Red Wings' speed on the attack through the neutral zone -- the offensive MO that made Detroit the best 5-on-5 outfit in the NHL.
In this series, they Predators have held the Wings to one goal per game at even strength. The Wings' second wave on the rush that netted 44 goals from defensemen -- tied for second in the NHL during the regular season -- has produced but one lone tally... in their only win of the series. The Predators led the NHL in goals from their rearguards (47) and again have stayed true to form with four markers in the four games thus far -- most in the playoffs.
So, there you have it: the Predators have neutralized the strengths of the Red Wings and stayed true to their identity. They've gotten better goaltending and scored first in all three of the wins -- an area that has plagued the Wings for two months, having blinked first in 17 of their past 21 tilts.
It's tough playing from behind, especially when the team standing in front of you knows your strengths and senses your vulnerability. The Predators are on the precipice of passing the team they've been chasing, on so many levels, for over a decade. On Friday in Nashville, they get their first opportunity to prove that they've truly arrived.