Commentary

Preds proved they are the better team

Updated: April 21, 2012, 2:12 AM ET
By Craig Custance | ESPN.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Like every hockey-playing kid of his generation growing up in the Detroit area, David Legwand emulated Steve Yzerman. He rooted for the Red Wings. It wasn't until he entered his draft year playing junior hockey in Michigan that he decided it was time to stop pulling for Detroit.

"You never know where you're going to get drafted," he said.

Like most hockey-playing kids of his generation growing up in Russia, Alexander Radulov rooted for the Russian Five. He watched them lead the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup, and admired the high-end skill of guys such as Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov and Slava Kozlov.

"Those guys were amazing," Radulov said.

Like every team in the Central Division, the Predators are better because of the Red Wings. At least that's Nashville coach Barry Trotz's theory. For years, Detroit has been the standard. The measuring stick. Beating the Red Wings means something.

"If it wasn't for the Detroit Red Wings, we might still be wallowing in mediocrity," Trotz said. "They force you to play at a different level. ... They've sort of brought the whole division up."

So it was almost too perfect that it was the Detroit kid who ended it for the Red Wings. Legwand's goal 13 seconds into the third period Friday swept away the momentum the Red Wings had built with a strong second period. It ended up being the game winner.

It was the next-generation Russian star Radulov who scored Nashville's only other goal of the game, converting a pass from Legwand.

It was the Nashville Predators who sent the Red Wings home, winning Game 5 by a final score of 2-1. It will go down as a 4-1 series win for the Predators, which looks convincing. But until that final second clicked off the clock and the standing Bridgestone Arena fans showered the ice with their giveaway gold T-shirts, the sliver of doubt remained.

There's no longer doubt. No longer doubt that the Predators are a better team than their rival. No longer doubt that the Predators are a legitimate Stanley Cup favorite.

"They were a big rivalry from the first day Nashville came to the league," Preds forward Patric Hornqvist said. "They've always been better than Nashville. Now, we're better than them."

Hornqvist said the message from Trotz from the first game of the series was consistent. The Nashville players had to be in the faces of Detroit's best players. They couldn't give Detroit's high-end skill guys any space on the ice. They succeeded wildly.

Pavel Datsyuk finished with just one goal. To paraphrase the sign of a Nashville fan, one of the game's most magical players disappeared.

Johan Franzen was a nonfactor. His only goal in the series was off his skate.

If there was a moment that captured the attitude of the Predators during this series, it came midway through the third period of the elimination game when Predators goalie Pekka Rinne was trying to get back to the front of the net and Tomas Holmstrom was in the way. Rinne grabbed Holmstrom and heaved him out of the crease, in a move goalies all over the league surely applauded.

This was the Predators' ice, and Nashville wasn't giving any of it away without a fight.

"You never want to give an inch, an extra step for them," Rinne said. "You want to hold your ground."

And Rinne did more than hold his ground in this series, in this game. He finished Game 5 with a workmanlike 21 saves. He didn't have the highlight saves like in Game 1 of the series or the sheer number like in the two games in Detroit. But he's become a playoff presence, a problem for someone else in Round 2.

"Of course the big guy in between the pipes, he was unbelievable," Hornqvist said. "If we keep playing this type of hockey, I think we're going to go deep."

They showed in this series they certainly have the ingredients to do so. Ryan Suter and Shea Weber will get most of the credit for shutting down Datsyuk's line, and deservedly so. But Mike Fisher, Martin Erat and Sergei Kostitsyn deserve a portion of that credit. They weren't productive offensively, but they get to keep playing in big part because of their contributions defensively. Fisher also was outstanding in the faceoff circle Friday night, winning 10 of 15 draws.

"They were the better top line," Hornqvist said.

The Predators were the better team. They had the better goalie and more depth at forward. They have two franchise defensemen instead of just one. And they have a GM in David Poile who made all the right moves during the second half of the season to put his team in position to beat the Red Wings.

He added Andrei Kostitsyn, who, as Detroit coach Mike Babcock pointed out after the game, gave the Predators seven top-six forwards. He picked up Paul Gaustad, who was a factor with his size and consistent faceoff success. He lured Radulov back from Russia, and Radulov seemed to finally get his playoff legs under him with his best postseason performance in Game 5. By far.

After the franchise-changing win, Poile was his usual conservative self on the elevator ride down to meet the team, only quietly shaking a couple of hands from those offering congratulations. But as he walked toward Keith Cash, a longtime security guard for the team, Poile broke away from his normal stoic persona. He shook both fists in the air for a brief moment, then offered up a fist for Cash to pound. Nine years Cash has been working these hallways, and he's never seen anything quite like this.