Preview: Like the Flyers/Penguins series in the East, this is another battle of two fantastic teams from the same division, slotted into the 4th and 5th seeds, who simply don’t like each other. Detroit, with essentially the same key players they had when they went to back-to-back Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, are looking to win yet another cup before they become the Boston Celtics of the NHL and are considered too old to do damage. On the other hand, you have Nashville, a team utterly devoid of a superstar forward, but who gets by on a ridiculously good defense and strong goaltending.

Team MVP:

Nashville: Shea Weber – Ask any hockey fan to list the top defenseman in the NHL, they’ll likely give you different answers. Ask them to list their top 5, and everybody would include two-way superstar Shea Weber. Weber is, simply put, the total package. At 6’4, he uses his height to bully around smaller players on the opposing team, while also stepping up to defend his teammates if they get attacked. Offensively, his stats rank him as the 6th top scoring defenseman this year, and an almost sure-fire Norris nomination. If you’re looking to see a defenseman play the position near perfectly, watch Weber.

Detroit: Pavel Datsyuk – At this point in his career, a strange thing is happening: Pavel Datsyuk is becoming underrated. Forget his two Stanley Cups. Forget his various trophies (three straight Selkes for best defensive forward, four straight Lady Byngs, which are still
prestigious despite the word “Lady”) and almost universal respect around the league – he doesn’t get nearly enough love. Elite stickhandling skills, elite passing, and he always seems to get better in the playoffs. Datsyuk is hungry for his first cup.

Most Wonderful Surprise:

Nashville: Mike Fisher – Off the ice, Fisher is known as that hockey player who struck the lottery, so to speak, by marrying country music singer Carrie Underwood. On-the-ice, through his career with the Senators, he found his niche as a 3rd line center. Defensively
responsible, thrown on the ice to counter the other team’s top stars and stop them from scoring. Eyebrows were raised when Nashville traded a 1st round pick for him, but after being given a larger role with the Predators, his two-way play fit perfectly and now he expects to see a fair share of icetime in the playoffs. If he does get eliminated in the first round, spending the whole summer with Carrie isn’t a bad consolation prize.

Detroit: Jiri Hudler – In the 2009 offseason, Jiri Hudler was given two choices. The Red Wings held his restricted free agent rights, and offered him $5.75 million over two years. As per the NHL’s rules, no other team was able to offer him a contract. In North America, at least. Dynamo Moscow of the KHL wanted him badly, and were willing to pay $10 million over two years, so Hudler decided to play in Russia. The hockey world went insane with conspiracy theories about how all the top European players would chase
the money, but in the end very few players (one of them we’ll get to later) did this before the NHL and KHL came to an agreement. Dynamo eventually released him, and now he’s back with Detroit putting up a solid 50 points.

Biggest Disappointment:

Nashville: Paul Gaustad – I mentioned before how last season, eyebrows were raised when the Predators traded a 1st round pick for a two-way center, but he found a niche on the team. This season, the Predators again traded a 1st round pick for a two-way center, but
Paul Gaustad, former Sabre, hasn’t been quite as good. Gaustad will need to shut down guys like Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg, and will need to be playing his best defensive hockey to stop the Red Wings.

Detroit: Kyle Quincey – While Nashville traded their 1st for a strong defensive center, Detroit was busy trading their 1st for an offensive defenseman, Kyle Quincey. Quincey started his career on the Red Wings, before overcrowding in the lineup caused him to be
waived to Los Angeles, where he broke out. After a stop in Colorado, Detroit made it a priority to get him back, but in the 18 games he’s played since rejoining the Wings, he’s only put up 2 goals and an assist.

Wildcard:

Nashville: Alexander Radulov – Radulov’s story is similar to Hudler’s, albeit more extreme. The 25-year-old forward actually spent so much time in the KHL and played so well, he’s the league’s all time leading scorer (the league isn’t very old). Unlike Hudler, Radulov signed with a Russian team while still under contract with Nashville, causing an international fiasco that ended with Radulov spending the past four years overseas, one year putting up 80 points in 54 games. Many wrote him off as forever dominating overseas, but this season he came back. Can Radulov’s domination of overseas leagues translate to NHL ice? Is Alex Radulov the best offensive forward currently on the Predators? You have to watch the series to get these answers.

Detroit: Nicklas Lidstrom – Lidstrom played his first NHL game in 1991, and from that moment until now, there has simply not been a better defenseman in the game. He’s at the point where you need to compare his career to guys like Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque, as
nobody else around comes close to matching his impact. Here’s the thing – at 41 years old, playing hockey for 19 straight seasons with very little injury problems – Lidstrom is still a great player. But every year Detroit fans held their collective breaths as they wait for him to announce if this is finally the year he hangs them up. He’s accomplished so much – 4 time Cup Winner, 10-time NHL First All-Star Team, 7 time Norris Trophy winner, all while staying loyal to one team – that he’ll unquestionably be a first ballot hall of famer. Looking at his (lack of) injury history and current old man ability, it’s safe to say he could hang around the Red Wings a couple more years. He’s the Brett Favre of the NHL, if Favre stayed loyal to the Packers, didn’t make a big deal over his retirement, and didn’t text penis pictures to various female employees. Actually, scratch that – he’s nothing like Favre.

Series Prediction:

It’s gonna be tight, but I like the veteran leaders in Detroit winning the series in 7. I don’t feel confident that Detroit can fight their way through a very tough Western Conference, but I think they can beat the Predators.