Heading into the Series
The Detroit Red Wings and Nashville Predators kick off a mid-week series each winning three of their last five outings. The play has not been all that different between the two teams to this point in the season, as the clubs are just separated by five points in the standings. Both clubs are bottom five in the league in goal differential, much of this due to being bottom five in goals for. The teams are stingy on defense as both are inside the top eight in goals allowed. Assuming that Bernier is out for this series (more on that later) the goaltending for the two teams is similar as well. As such, the outcome of this series may be decided by who is not in the lineup. Although these teams appear to be doppelgangers, there are differences that could be the story of the series.
Filip Forsberg headlines the Predators offense. His 28 points on the year place him just outside of the top 30 players in the league in offensive production. He is a skilled power-forward that some think could be on the move at the deadline this year. His six million dollar cap hit over the next two years could be considered a bargain to teams seeking a productive, big winger. Outside of Forsberg, the offensive threats for Nashville decline rapidly, as the next best scoring player is outside of the top 150 players. They, like the Red Wings, have an offense by committee approach, hoping to win tight games due to good defensive and goaltender play. Unlike the Red Wings, however, they produce on the powerplay. They are 18th in the league in production with the extra-man scoring at just under a 20% clip. This could be the difference in the series.
The Red Wings have 20 fewer goals than the league average with one game less played. This is a team that truly scores by committee, as their leading point-getter in Filip Hronek has just 18 points. This can be looked at in a couple of ways. The positive is that they are not reliant on a Forsberg-type to score. The negative is when a goal is needed, they do not have a pure goal-scorer to lean on. They are below league average in every offensive category. Although their powerplay still ranks bottom-three in the league, the unit has come on of late. At its lowest point this season, the powerplay had converted on just 6.1% of their chances. Although not great, they have almost doubled their powerplay output now converting 11.8% of the time. There is a long way to go in this department, but the improvement has been considerable.
This group for Nashville may be the most interesting to watch in the series. The Predators are missing Norris trophy winner Roman Josi and top-four defenseman Ryan Ellis. These are two huge losses for a defense corps that has underachieved most of the season. What was considered a strength in the past, is failing to prove so this season. This group is aging, and injured, which is a bad combination for this season, and moving forward. They have allowed four goals or more in 11 of their 14 losses this season. If Josi remains out, this could be an area that the Red Wings can exploit.
The Detroit defensive group finds itself in a different situation than the Predators’. They do not have many players that would be in the top two pairings on most teams. They are healthy however and play a strong team game. It bears mentioning that they have recently called up Dennis Cholowski to spark the second powerplay. Cholowski has excelled from an offensive standpoint in Grand Rapids, so the big club is hoping to see his success translate. Cholowski Coach Jeff Blashill has done this as part of a lineup that includes 11 forward instead of 12, and seven defensemen instead of the standard three. It has proven effective in this five-game stretch that has seen improved offensive output.
The Nashville goaltender group may be the group that has underachieved the most among all of the groups on either team. Pekka Rinne has been inconsistent, and as a result, has a save percentage (SV%) of less than .900. Another statistic that points to Rinne’s struggles include his goals saved above average (GSAA). Rinne has allowed 5.2 more goals than the average goalie in the league. This does not bode well for Nashville as Rinne carries a five-million-dollar cap hit. Juuse Saros had a rough start to the season but has steadied the ship. He now carries a SV% of .913 and a GSAA of 2. Although Saros has started four fewer games, he only has two fewer quality starts than Rinne on the season. I would anticipate seeing both goalies this week.
The Red Wings lost their most valuable player in Jonathan Bernier last week in the series against Dallas. Bernier has a soft-tissue injury with no designation as to how long he will be out at this time. The injury could be a catastrophic one, as his tandem-mate Thomas Greiss has the worst GSAA in the entire league at -10.4. As can be imagined, Greiss’ SV% is not good either, sitting at .885. There is no other way to state it, but Greiss must take a step forward from what we’ve seen so far for the Red Wings to have a chance.
Series Conclusion and Prediction
The outcome of this series may very well hang on the shoulders of Greiss. Nashville is just outside of the top 10 in shots/games played (S/GP) getting 30 shots to the net. Also concerning is that the Red Wings allow the fifth-most shots allowed/games played (SA/GP), allowing 31.6 shots against. If Greiss does not improve his performance, this could be a recipe for disaster. I believe that Greiss will take this opportunity to show why Steve Yzerman signed him in the offseason. He will give at least one good performance that allows the Red Wings to split the series, and I believe they will do just that.