The Detroit Red Wings will kick off their best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinal series on the road, as they visit the fourth- seeded Nashville Predators in tonight's Game 1 from Bridgestone Arena.
The fifth-seeded Red Wings had a chance to lock up the West's No. 4 spot and begin the playoffs at home instead of in Nashville, but a regular-season ending 3-2 shootout loss to Chicago and the Predators' win at Colorado put the Red Wings in fifth place.
That could be a big difference in this series for Detroit, which set an NHL record this year with a 23-game home winning streak and ended the regular season 31-7-3 as the host. However, that outstanding home record was offset by a 17-21-3 mark on the road.
The first two tests of this series will be played in the Music City, including Friday's Game 2. The Red Wings will then host Games 3 and 4 on Sunday and Tuesday, respectively.
Though the Predators have been consistent participants in the playoffs over the past eight seasons, they haven't had much success in the postseason. Nashville hopes a world-class goaltender, one of the top defensive pairings in the league and some key in-season additions will get them past the first round for only the second time in franchise history.
Nashville is one of only five teams to make it to the postseason in seven of the last eight seasons, but last year's seven-game defeat of the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference quarterfinals marked the first time it moved on to round two. The Predators had their run end in six games by the Vancouver Canucks in the semifinals.
Pekka Rinne could be in line for a second straight Vezina Trophy nominee after another stellar regular season, but the Preds goaltender hopes to play better this spring than he did in last year's postseason. Rinne went 6-6 with a 2.57 goals-against average and .907 save percentage during the run to the 2011 conference semis.
Rinne is the last line of defense behind a solid group of blueliners that includes the dynamic duo of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Weber, a Norris Trophy finalist last season, was tied for the league lead among defensemen with 19 goals this season, while Suter posted a career-high 46 points. Both were All- Stars this past season and combined for 11 points in last season's playoffs.
Nashville also added to its offense before the deadline, getting winger Andrei Kostitsyn, brother of fellow Predator Sergei, and gritty center Paul Gaustad. Andrei Kostitsyn had four goals and 12 points in 19 games after getting picked up from Montreal, while Gaustad gives Nashville a solid penalty killer and a reliable option when it needs to win a face off. The former Sabre won 57.3 percent of his draws this season and will be key for Nashville's 10th-ranked penalty kill unit (83.6 percent).
The Predators also got a big boost outside of the trade market when Alexander Radulov decided to return to the NHL after leaving the Predators a few years ago to ply in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. Now a more experienced and polished player, Radulov made a quick transition back to the NHL style and had seven points in nine games with Nashville.
Detroit still has superstar players like defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and a bevy of talented forwards that includes Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, but this year's Red Wings do not appear to be on the same level with the team that won it all in 2008 and came one win away from claiming back-to-back titles in '09. Detroit has bowed in the second round in each of the last two seasons and was ousted in seven games by San Jose last spring.
Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard has had his battles with injuries this year, but is ready to go for tonight. Howard, who missed time with a fractured right index finger and also battled a nagging groin issue down the stretch, was limited to 57 starts during the regular season, but he still put up solid numbers with a 35-17-4 record to go with a 2.13 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
Not helping things in front of Howard is the fact that the 41-year-old Lidstrom, has been playing on an ankle that is leaving him limited because of a deep bone bruise. That could prevent the seven-time Norris Trophy winner from adding much to his 183 career playoff points spanned over a club-record 258 postseason appearances.
Lidstrom isn't the only player currently nagged by injuries. Zetterberg (ankle) and fellow forwards Todd Bertuzzi (hip) and Danny Cleary (knee) will play through their own issues in Game 1. Speedy forward Darren Helm suffered a sprained MCL on March 17 and is questionable for tonight's opener.
The Predators will be looking for their first playoff series victory against the Red Wings in the third meeting between the clubs. The Central Division rivals also met in the first round in 2004 and '08, with Detroit taking both series in six games. This will mark Nashville's first time with home-ice advantage.
Making things interesting is the fact that the clubs split their six-game season series, with each game ending in regulation and both teams winning twice on home ice. Rinne got all six starts, posting a 2.67 GAA and .920 save percentage, while Howard was in net for four of the meetings, going 2-2 with a 2.26 GAA and .908 save percentage.