Motor City: Replacing a Rival

Pavel Datsyuk confronts Paul Gaustad and Ryan Suter on March 30, 2012 at Joe Louis Arena

By Rhys Richards (@RREsq)

Last Tuesday, the Detroit Red Wings and their fans celebrated the 15th anniversary of the team’s brawl with the Colorado Avalanche at Joe Louis Arena with a 7-2 drubbing of the Columbus Blue Jackets at home. That famous bloodbath pitted Igor Larionov against Peter Forsberg, Brendan Shanahan against Adam Foote, and Mike Vernon against Patrick Roy. With all of those well-known players in the mix, the brawl is still remembered most for Darren McCarty pummeling Claude Lemieux until Lemieux turtled.

As the fifteen years have passed, the vast majority of the players on both teams have retired from the game. As those players went, so did the Detroit-Colorado rivalry. Detroit’s success in the past two decades means that the Red Wings regularly see all other NHL teams at their best, but Detroit has been waiting for another team to take Colorado’s place as its fiercest rival.

Detroit bested St. Louis in shootout Tuesday night off of a game winning topshelf backhand from Todd Bertuzzi. The 3-2 win gave Detroit 101 points for an NHL record 12 straight regular seasons of over 100 points. The Red Wings have only lost the Central Division twice in the past 11 seasons. The Blues, who recently claimed the Central Division crown, would naturally be a candidate for the rival that supplanted the Avalanche.

Detroit took the season series with St. Louis 4-2. The Red Wings won the only two games decided by more than a goal, including the New Year’s Eve affair that ended in a shutout by Jimmy Howard. More importantly, recent seasons suggest that St. Louis is not in the same class as Detroit just yet.

The Chicago Blackhawks are another long-time rival that could be a candidate to replace Colorado as Detroit’s biggest rival in the modern NHL. Chicago leads the season series 3-2, but all five games were decided by a goal. Two of those games were decided in overtime. Detroit will end its regular season versus the Blackhawks on Saturday.

Chicago is also candidate if only because the Blackhawks signed former Wing Marian Hossa to a 12-year contract worth $62.8 million on July 1, 2009 after Hossa had helped the Wings to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final.

Perennial powerhouses Vancouver and San Jose can also make a case for being Detroit’s main rival. Each matchup between the Canucks and Red Wings has the makings of an instant classic.  Meanwhile, San Jose has had Detroit’s number in recent playoffs, including a seven-game Sharks win in the second round of last season’s playoffs. No matter how good those games are, Detroit faces a better candidate to become its main rival more often and within its geographical area.

While St. Louis and Chicago will battle Detroit for each and every win as well as the Division title every season, Nashville is closest to replacing the Colorado Avalanche of the ’90’s.  Should the Red Wings and Predators meet in the first round of the playoffs as they would if the season ended today, that series could solidify the budding rivalry.

The two teams split the regular season 3-3, though Nashville improved its chances of snatching the fourth seed in the Western Conference from Detroit when it handled the Red Wings 4-1 last Friday. The Red Wings played well, but the Predators’ goaltender Pekka Rinne was brilliant with 31 stops. Nashville also found two goals from unlikely sources in Gabriel Bourque and Francis Bouillon. Captain Shea Weber sealed the statement victory with an empty-net goal.

Pekka Rinne robs Henrik Zetterberg as the Predators beat the Red Wings 4-1 on March 30, 2012 at Joe Louis Arena

While Nashville won the last meeting 4-1 and Detroit won once on the road and once at home 4-1, the other three games between the Central Division rivals were all decided by one goal. Perhaps more importantly, Nashville has won both matches between the two teams after the Trade Deadline.

Nashville was very active at the Trade Deadline adding Hal Gill, Paul Gaustad, and Andrei Kostitsyn. Alexander Radulov was their biggest late season addition when he rejoined his former club on March 22nd at the end of the KHL season. In seven games, Radulov has three goals and three assists.

Head Coach Mike Babcock acknowledged the similarities between the teams when he told Michigan Live, “It looks to me like we’re playing Nashville in the first round. Two really good teams, not much to pick between us, so it’s going to be a battle.”

After Friday’s victory, Nashville Head Coach Barry Trotz told The Sports Network, “It’s good for our franchise. It sorta says that we’ve arrived a little bit. That’s one milestone and hopefully we’ve got a lot more.”

With two games left, Detroit leads Nashville by one point in the race for the fourth spot. With no significant differences between the two teams, home ice could decide the series.

Detroit leads the NHL in home victories with 31. At 31-6-2, Detroit’s home mastery is only rivaled by St. Louis(30-5-5). Away from Joe Louis Arena, Detroit is 1-5-2 in its last eight games and is 17-21-3 this season. The Red Wings are tied with the Capitals for most road losses among current playoff teams. Nashville is a more respectable 21-16-3 on the road, but is better at home with a record of 25-10-5.

The budding rivalry starts with the two aforementioned head coaches, two of the best coaches in the NHL.

Each team has one of the best goaltenders in the game. When healthy, Jimmy Howard has played like a Vezina Trophy finalist. In 55 games, he is 35-16-3 with a .920 save percentage, a 2.13 goals against average, and six shutouts. Rinne should be a Vezina Trophy finalist. In 71 games, he is 42-18-8 with a .922 save percentage, 2.43 goals against average, and four shutouts.

On the back end, Detroit boasts first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Nicklas Lidstrom and the heir apparent Niklas Kronwall as well as the likes of Ian White, Brad Stuart, Kyle Quincey, Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl, and Brendan Smith. On the other hand, Nashville has arguably the best defensive pairing in the NHL with probable Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber and longtime partner Ryan Suter. Gill, Bouillon, Kevin Klein, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, Jonathon Bloom, and Jack Hillen round out Nashville’s defensive corps.

Detroit has the advantage up front with a top-six that includes Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Valterri Filppula, Todd Bertuzzi, and Jiri Hudler. Nashville closed the gap with the addition of Radulov, but cannot best Detroit with David Legwand, Mike Fischer, Martin Erat, and the Kostitsyn brothers. Detroit’s third and fourth lines maintain if not widen that gap.

This likely first round playoff matchup could turn out to be the first of several between these two teams in the near future. Nashville has been auditioning for Colorado’s role and has generally played Detroit well in recent seasons. Should the series require seven games, the Red Wings may finally find the modern version of the former Avalanche.

As Detroit was reminded last week, history shows that one melee can lead to a long-standing and deep-seated hatred between two teams. A long series and future battles between two similar teams could bring exactly that, though a second brawl like the one between the Red Wings and Avalanche could be a tall order.

Should pending unrestricted free agent Suter were to be lured away from Nashville by Detroit this off-season, that rivalry may be set for several seasons to come regardless of whether a brawl occurs.

Detroit hosts New Jersey tonight at 7:30.

Statistics, schedules, and other information obtained at www.tsn.ca and www.nhl.com.     

Share your thoughts about the NHL, the Detroit Red Wings, and hockey in general with Rhys at Twitter: @RREsq.  He can be reached via email at RhysJRichards@gmail.com.  Join the many fans of The Hockey Guys on Facebook and Twitter @TheHockeyGuys.

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