After three days’ review, we’ve finally arrived at the most wonderful time of the year – the playoffs. Here’s a look at the last few games of the Nashville Predators’ 2011-12 regular season and the first-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series against the Detroit Red Wings.
Nashville Predators 2011-12 Year In Review (In Review), Part 4: April and Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1
All of the new additions to the Predators’ roster in February and March had improved the team as a whole, but the early going was still a little rough as the players learned what to expect from each other on the ice. As April rolled around they were finally becoming comfortable, which showed as Nashville made a push for home ice in the playoffs.
Anders Lindback got the call in net against Minnesota and performed better than he had in most of his limited opportunities throughout the season, pushing the Preds to a 2-1 shootout win at home. Pekka Rinne closed the door on the Dallas Stars’ season in the Preds’ final home game of the year as Nashville won 2-0. Lindback got the final start in net as the Preds destroyed Colorado 6-1, despite being outshot heavily by the Avalanche. The team’s undefeated April locked up home ice in the first round of the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history.
You want to score in Nashville? You have to go through this guy. (PHOTO: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
It was an excellent all-around season for the Nashville offense, which wasn’t dominated by any one star player. After a late-season surge, Martin Erat finished as the club’s top producer with 58 points (19G-39A). Ten Predators finished with double-digit goal totals, led by Patric Hornqvist (27). Erat and Ryan Suter led the team in assists (39), Shea Weber in +/- (+21), and Jordin Tootoo in PIMs (92).
But the real story of the year was Pekka Rinne. His season stat line was full of career highs – in games played (73), wins (43), and shots faced (2,153) – and his .923 save percentage was the second-best of his career. Nashville’s success in the playoffs would rest on his shoulders.
WESTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
NASHVILLE (48-26-8) VS DETROIT (48-28-6)
Home ice was crucial considering Nashville’s first-round opponent was the rival Detroit Red Wings, who broke the record for most consecutive home wins during the regular season with 23 straight victories at Joe Louis Arena. Their road record? 17-21-3.
Peter Fish over at Octopus Thrower, Fansided’s Red Wings blog, says Detroit fans weren’t too concerned about Nashville heading into the series. “They have always played the Red Wings tough, but it seemed when the Red Wings wanted to beat Nashville they did and in spectacular fashion (like Datsyuk dekeing Suter out of Nashville and into Minnesota),” says Fish. “The series could have gone to either team depending on how the puck was bouncing.”
GAME ONE – Nashville, TN – April 11
NASHVILLE 3, DETROIT 2
Nashville’s vaunted power play went 0-for-6 against a tough Detroit penalty-killing squad, but Gabriel Bourque scored two goals and Pekka Rinne stopped 35 shots as the Predators took a 1-0 series lead.
With NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in attendance, the referees handed the two teams a combined 34 penalty minutes. Detroit netminder Jimmy Howard blanked the Preds, but the Wings punished Nashville by tallying two with the man advantage.
With Martin Erat in the box for holding and 23 seconds remaining, Detroit coach Mike Babcock pulled Howard and threw the full weight of the Red Wings offense at Rinne. The Nashville goalie denied the Wings a tying goal, but the focus of everything after the game was a play at the end where captain Shea Weber grabbed Henrik Zetterberg’s head and smashed into the glass.
The incident immediately went under the national media microscope, and Detroit fans in particular called for Weber to be suspended. In the end the Nashville captain escaped supplemental discipline, with his punishment limited to the 2 penalty minutes he got for roughing. Many outside Nashville called foul.
“Weber certainly deserved at least a game for his hit on Zetterberg,” says Jordan Hoy of Octopus Thrower. “Nonetheless, I don’t think this incident played a factor in the outcome of the series.”
GAME TWO – Nashville, TN – April 13
DETROIT 3, NASHVILLE 2
Nashville outshot Detroit 26-17, but a stingy Red Wings defense and an uncharacteristic .824 save percentage for Pekka Rinne – helped the Wings even the series at 1-1.
The Weber incident from Game 1 was addressed almost immediately when Todd Bertuzzi dropped the gloves with Weber at 1:36. “It’s hockey,” Bertuzzi said later. “Things happen in the game and whatever. It’s kind of something you gotta do. You have to stick up for your teammates and do stuff like that.”
One of the keys to this game was another 0-for-6 performance by the Predators’ power play. Detroit was fired up all game, taking away space from Predators’ players and making every second rough on the home team. Even when Nashville crawled back into contention on an Andrei Kostitsyn goal set up by Alexander Radulov, Detroit responded with another goal to go up 3-1. A Shea Weber goal with just under five minutes remaining wasn’t enough to tie the game, and the series headed north to Detroit knotted at one game each.
GAME THREE – Detroit, MI – April 15
NASHVILLE 3, DETROIT 2
Pekka Rinne stood on his head in enemy territory, stopping 41 of 43 shots as Nashville took a 2-1 series lead with its first playoff win at Joe Louis Arena in six tries.
Once again the referees played a huge role in the game, handing out 24 penalty minutes between the two teams. Nashville finally ended its drought on the power play, taking the lead at 2:48 of the first period with a Shea Weber wrist shot assisted by Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn.
Impressive as Rinne was, one of the biggest stops of the game belonged to Kevin Klein. The shaft of Klein’s stick deflected a Johan Franzen shot bound for net on a Red Wings power play at the end of the second period. That preserved Nashville’s fragile lead and killed Detroit’s momentum.
Klein picked up another highlight with a goal at 3:50 of the second period. Martin Erat carried the puck through the neutral zone before dishing to Klein, who burned past Brad Stuart with a burst of speed and beat Howard high glove side.
GAME FOUR – Detroit, MI – April 17
NASHVILLE 3, DETROIT 1
Solid as Pekka Rinne had been in Game 3 in Detroit, he was even better in Game 4. A dominant 40-for-41 performance by the Nashville goalie helped the Predators take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.
The first two periods were all about Rinne. Detroit dominated in puck possession and fired shot after shot on Nashville’s goal, but Pekka withstood them all to keep the Predators in the game despite being outshot 28-10 in the first 40 minutes.
Gabriel Bourque picked up his third goal of the series on an assist from Alex Radulov to break the tie at 1:55 of the third, but Jiri Hudler scored at 3:14 to bring things even once again. Then came the Kevin Klein goal – one some might call the best goal ever. Kevin Klein, who missed out on a star despite a standout performance in Game 3, made up for it in this game with what would prove to be the game-winner. Once again Martin Erat set up the play, drawing the entire Detroit offense before flipping the puck back to a wide-open Klein.
GAME FIVE – Nashville, TN – April 20
NASHVILLE 2, DETROIT 1
The series returned to Nashville for Game 5 and once again both teams played each other tough. Jimmy Howard played one of his best games of the series, stopping 23 of 25 shots, but he was once again outdone by Pekka Rinne. The Nashville goalie gave up just one goal on 22 shots, and Alexander Radulov and David Legwand each scored to put Detroit’s season to an end.
I had the pleasure of being on hand for this one, and the last minute of the game constituted one of the most memorable moments of my tenure as a Nashville Predators fan. Looking around at the sold-out house, I saw not one person sitting down. Everyone was cheering non-stop at the end of the game, which was the culmination of years of advancement through the league from expansion punching bag to perennial contender. Sure, we’d won our first playoff series the previous year – but the was against the Ducks. This was against the Red Wings. In the 12 years since I first took in a game at Bridgestone Arena, I’ve never heard it so loud as I did at the end of the Detroit series in 2012. Despite every game being close our team had pulled off a victory against the team that had been its measuring stick for success since Day One of the franchise, and the Nashville Predators fans responded at full volume.
This girl was quite possibly the only Detroit Red Wings fan cheering by the end of their series with Nashville. (PHOTO: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
Detroit fans were frustrated with the loss. “The series was tense and every game could have gone to either way depending on how the puck was bouncing,” says Peter Fish. “Rinne stood on his head the entire series and made watch the games frustrating for Wings fans.” Jordan Hoy concurs with his fellow Octopus Thrower. “Rinne was better than Howard throughout the series, and in playoff hockey goaltending is everything,” he says. “Plus seemingly every Red Wing lapse ended up in Howard’s net. The Predators capitalized on their opportunities and the Wings didn’t.”
With the win, Nashville advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second straight year. Their opponent would be the Phoenix Coyotes, winning knocked off Chicago in five games. I’ll pick up there tomorrow as I finish my look at the 2011-12 Nashville Predators season.