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Original Issue

Beating the Red Wings (When You Really, Really Have to Beat the Red Wings)

For the Predators, rival Detroit has long been their modelin the pursuit of excellence. Now Nashville is measuring up to its nemesis, the first obstacle in a Stanley Cup run

In Nashville theaccursed white whale is red. Since the Predators entered the NHL in 1998, theyhave chased the elusive, hulking glory of the Red Wings, not only in theCentral Division but also in their own city, which is heavily sprinkled withDetroit fans. Now, with five weeks remaining in a season in which Nashvilleused a run of 20 wins in 24 games to cement its status as a Stanley Cupcontender, the Predators--with visions of a silver chalice rather than Ahab'sgold doubloon shimmering in their minds--are hot on the great beast's tail.

A 4--3 win overDetroit last Saturday night, a game that Nashville controlled at even strength,was sealed in overtime when newly acquired star Peter Forsberg (a longtime RedWings nemesis from his days with the Colorado Avalanche) knocked in a niftybackhand pass from Paul Kariya. "It couldn't be better," Forsberg saidafterward. "We beat Detroit at home.... We have to keep the momentumgoing."

The win, whichthrust the Predators back into first place in the Central, evened the seasonseries between the clubs at two games each and set the stage for four meetingsin March that will decide the division. All games in the seemingly interminable82-match regular season might be about equal--sometimes two points, sometimesthree--but, as Orwell's farm animals might note, those against Detroit are moreequal than others.

Nashville playedbefore a sellout crowd of 17,113 on Saturday, and with each victory over theRed Wings a few more locals may be won over. (Before a home game againstDetroit in the Predators' first season, forward Scott Walker surveyed the seaof red, wing-wheeled jerseys in the stands and said, "O.K., boys, let's tryto take the crowd out of the game.") Also, any game against thestandard-setting Red Wings gives Nashville the chance to gauge both the extentand limitations of its capabilities. Most important of all in this season'stop-heavy Western Conference: If Nashville can at last sink Detroit in theCentral, it could avoid a first-round playoff matchup with an elite PacificDivision team (box, page 43), a worthwhile detour for a franchise that has yetto win a postseason series.

"Stanley Cup,Stanley Cup, Stanley Cup, Stanley Cup, Stanley Cup, Stanley Cup ...,"Nashville coach Barry Trotz was saying last Friday morning as he tapped thenames of Detroit players on a whiteboard in the coach's room. Ten players inall got a tap. (Combined, those Red Wings have won the Cup 20 times.) Had hedone the same exercise with the nameplates of his players, he would have had tostop after two--Forsberg, who won twice with Colorado, and center Jason Arnott,who won with the New Jersey Devils in 2000. Trotz, the only coach in Predatorshistory, mixes realism with an inveterate optimism. In the days leading toSaturday's game, Predators' coaches were forbidden to bring up theirThursday-night loss to the Montreal Canadiens, in which Nashville squanderedthree two-goal leads and lost in a shootout. Anyone caught talking about howNashville had kicked away a precious point would have been expected tocontribute to the Negativity Fund--a so-labeled plastic container in thecoaches' office that staff members pay into for spreading bad vibes. On Fridayassociate coach Brent Peterson wrote energy and patience on a whiteboard ascoaching guidelines for practice. Then he began to write no s-a-r ... beforestopping. "How," he asked, "do you spell sarcasm?"

The Predatorsoperate in a slogan-heavy environment, the locker room painted with signagesuch as no excuses and winning respect and pride, hustle, desire. Nocatchphrase would have better suited the Red Wings' matchup than do yourhomework. Nashville went to exceptional lengths to determine ways to handleDetroit's superb power play (they wanted to neutralize immovable forward TomasHolmstrom, who does his best work near the crease, but he ended up scoringthree goals on the man advantage), to outfox the Red Wings' stingypenalty-killing unit (the Predators went 0--3 on the power play) and to attacktheir aggressive 1-3-1 forechecking system (which Nashville did successfully).Says Kariya, "Before Detroit games, [the meetings] are alwayslonger."

But notnecessarily more intense. For all their relative inexperience, the Predatorsare a loose bunch, as is Forsberg. The most riveting pre--Red Wings activitycame on Friday at the clubhouse Ping-Pong table at which Forsberg, who says hewas unbeaten during his season and a half with the Flyers, dropped games towinger Martin Erat and to goaltender Tomas Vokoun, before avenging the loss toVokoun as teammates yelped. When the table tennis ended, hockey practice began:a sprightly, energetic session. No negativity anywhere.

Even when playersaren't involved, deliberations go on for a while when Detroit is in town.Heading into game day Trotz fiddled repeatedly with his line combinations. (Forone thing he wanted to play strength against strength: his No. 1 line ofForsberg, Kariya and Erat against Detroit's No. 1 line centered by HenrikZetterberg, thus keeping Forsberg away from Kris Draper's checking line.) Inmixing things up, Trotz dropped rookie winger Alexander Radulov to the fourthline. A 20-year-old who was a dynamo in juniors (152 points in 62 games and MVPof the Memorial Cup) and who won a spot in training camp with his virtuosity,Radulov hadn't scored since Jan. 1. But when assistant G.M. Paul Fenton saw theline combinations, he suggested that Trotz flip Radulov with plugger VernonFiddler on the second line. The challenge of increased ice time andresponsibility, Fenton suggested, might snap Radulov's skid. Trotz listened butbalked. "There's an accountability factor," he said. "From theplayers' standpoint, this is maybe our biggest game of the year. They'd want toknow why the coaches are putting him in that situation."

The largerquestion is that if Trotz were reluctant to play Radulov important minutesagainst Detroit in late February, would he do it in a playoff game in April orMay? "We're trying to win the damn Stanley Cup, and we need to know [aboutRadulov]," Fenton said to Trotz, referring to finding out how the rookieplays under pressure and whether Nashville had to add a more experiencedforward before the Feb. 27 trade deadline. A Red Wings showdown, though, is noplace for experimentation: Radulov played less than six minutes and scarcely atall in the third period.

Trotz'smeticulousness becomes heightened as the stakes rise, and in his final teamaddress before the game he spent 15 minutes going over breakouts, dissectingthe Predators' coverage strategy on lost face-offs while analyzing Detroit'sface-off plays. Normally in such meetings Trotz will come up with motivationallines, trying to frame why the game is important. Not this time. "If youcan't figure out your motivation" for this game, Trotz said, "you'redead."

A few hours laterForsberg scored the dramatic game-winner, igniting the raucous, approving homecrowd and reminding them that while the Red Wings are a whale of a team, thePredators may finally be their match.

Brian Cazeneuve handicaps the Western Conference playoff race, and Allan Muirbreaks down the East.

The Predators are a loose bunch. The most rivetingpre--Red Wings activity unfolded at the CLUBHOUSE PING-PONG TABLE.


Photograph Lou Capozzola

WING DINGED Before scoring the game-winner last Saturday, new Predator Forsberg played a little, uh, defense on forward Valtteri Filppula.



NASHVILLE SOUND A sellout crowd joined in the celebration after David Legwand (center) scored a second-period goal.



STRATEGIZING Trotz and his staff spent extra time juggling lines and prepping the Predators for their biggest game of the year.