- Craig Custance
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DETROIT -- The booing was so loud at the start of the game, you could tell the Joe Louis Arena crowd had a good five days of pent-up hate to spew in the direction of Predators defenseman Shea Weber. The memory of Weber slamming Henrik Zetterberg's head into the glass in Nashville wasn't fading away. And it reignited every time Weber touched the puck.
There was a sign in the crowd calling Weber a wanted man. There were chants coming from the cheap seats not suitable for print. There was a pregame radio show that asked if Weber was the biggest villain in Detroit sports.
"Obviously when he came to the rink, he knew he wasn't going to be the most likable guy," Predators coach Barry Trotz said.
The vitriol might motivate some guys. These same fans hated Chris Pronger and he seemed to thrive on it. It might distract others.
As for Weber, being added to a list that includes Pronger and Claude Lemieux didn't seem to do either.
"I don't think it matters one way or another," Weber's partner Ryan Suter said.
Weber was even less verbose.
"It's part of it," he said. "Whatever."
The best way to diffuse 20,066 people out for blood is to score early, which Weber did. His power-play goal snapped the Predators' drought with a man advantage and gave Nashville an early lead. He played 27:06 in Nashville's 3-2 win over the Red Wings, one that gave the Predators a 2-1 series lead. It was more ice time than anyone else in the game. He led the Predators with four shots on goal, tied for the lead with three blocked shots and tied for second with three hits.
It's no mistake either that Pavel Datsyuk scored his first goal of the series with Weber on the bench. When Weber has been matched up against Datsyuk this series, he's done the near impossible. Contain the uncontainable.
"He was a monster out there," Trotz said. "You talk about great players when there's a little bit of adversity or controversy or big moment -- guys stepping up He made a big statement. 'I'm here to stay, nothing is going to stop me from being a top player.' Shea is one of those top guys."
Mike Babcock wasn't surprised. He's been coaching against Weber for years and won a gold medal with him in the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, where Weber once ripped a slap shot so hard it not only beat Germany's Thomas Greiss but broke right through the net, bouncing off the boards.
At times in Game 2, it looked like the incident with Zetterberg might have seeped into Weber's on-ice performance. He was only fined, but during a conversation with league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, the message was clear. Playoffs are about playing on that edge between physicality and dirty play. The league would be watching to make sure Weber, not known as a dirty player, didn't cross it again.
He accepted the challenge from Todd Bertuzzi to fight in Game 2, but after that his play looked tentative.
That made his performance Sunday, in the toughest of environments in Game 3, so crucial. To Trotz it was a statement game. To Babcock it was what he's come to expect against Weber.
"I don't know if he was any different than he always is. He's just a really good player," Babcock said. "Him and [Ryan Suter] always play anywhere from 25 to 30 minutes and they play hard."
He certainly had help in this win. Follow defenseman Kevin Klein channeled Bobby Orr in beating Brad Stuart before going top shelf on Jimmy Howard during a second-period breakaway that gave Nashville a 2-0 lead.
Klein said a couple of his teammates wondered if he blacked out during that goal-scoring sequence. The first smile from Weber during his postgame media session came when talking about the impressive goal from Klein.
"I don't know who that was," Weber joked. "That was quite the play. He was flying up the ice and made a great move on the defenseman and roofed it."
And neither Weber nor Suter was pleased with how the third period played out. The Red Wings outshot Nashville 19-4 in the third and Suter seemed disturbed by that performance even though they clung on to the win.
"I don't know what that was," he said. "We have to play with confidence when we're up by a goal."
It wasn't a perfect performance by the Predators. Nashville probably outplayed Detroit in the second game of this series and took the loss. The inverse was true for most of Game 3.
But the Predators are showing resolve in this series as it heads into its second half, and it comes from experience. Weber said there were moments last year in the playoffs when they might have taken things for granted. Even with all the additions, talent and depth on this year's team, that hasn't happened. He said the focus remains more than on each game. It's second by second.
For the Predators to eliminate the Red Wings from the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, it has to be that way. It's the only way they'll pull it off.
"He's pretty stone-faced out there," Klein said of his captain. "He's our leader, we look to him and he's great like that."
11dScott Burnside and Craig Custance