Preds climb into series, Wings' heads

Updated: April 16, 2004, 5:58 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A few days ago, this series seemed destined to become but a playoff footnote, the Nashville Predators' first, brief, hope-we-didn't-disturb-anyone, appearance in the postseason and the Detroit Red Wings' emphatic erasure of last year's first-round collapse against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

In the wake of twin home victories by the suddenly confident, suddenly playoff-savvy Predators, it is a footnote no more but rather a series with two compelling storylines on a collision course.

And if there is one rule about the Stanley Cup playoffs, it's that only one story has a happy ending.

"It's so much fun. What could be better?" gushed normally taciturn Predators goalie Tomas Vokoun after he turned aside 41 shots for the second straight game as he and the Predators shut out the NHL's best regular-season team 3-0 Tuesday night.

As the final horn blew, Vokoun raised his arms in celebration to the sellout crowd, which responded with a deafening roar.

"It's all about us as a team getting inside their heads," Vokoun said after he'd turned aside 82 of 83 shots in posting victories in Games 3 and 4.

Earlier, Vokoun suggested the Red Wings were arrogant, complaining to officials about calls. He suggested there may be a little less of that arrogance in the Red Wings locker room now.

"The only way you get respect is by winning," Vokoun said. "I think they know now we are here for battle."

Somewhere outside the Gaylord Entertainment Center, the guy who was asking $75-$100 for the nosebleed seats for Game 4, seats that have been empty for much of the past six years in Nashville, was scratching his head and thinking the sky's the limit.

The same sentiment permeates the Predators dressing room.

A few yards and a world of hockey history away, the Red Wings are wondering too about the sky -- and whether it's falling on their collective heads again.

Much as there was against Anaheim last year, there is a sense of disbelief about how this series has suddenly turned on its ear. The Red Wings have outshot Nashville 140-93. They have outscored them 5-2 in the third period. And yet there is something not quite right, a hitch in their swing, a hiccup in their normally dulcet tones.

The Predators have outscored the Wings 8-6, and the two teams have combined for one power-play goal on 39 attempts.

Being shut out on the power play (the Predators are 0-for-19) must be troubling to Nashville coach Barry Trotz and his charges, but they aren't icing Hall of Fame units that include Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Brett Hull, Chris Chelios and Henrik Zetterberg, et al.

"We've said all along this is a good hockey team," said Darren McCarty, who has been on hand for the last three Stanley Cup wins in Detroit.

Is there frustration?

"To a degree," he said. "But we also know what the bigger picture entails. Obviously, being tied 2-2 and getting one goal on 80 shots [give or take], there's some frustration."

Looking to add some speed to his lineup and perhaps trying to send a message that the status quo just wasn't getting it done, Detroit coach Dave Lewis yanked veteran Steve Thomas from the lineup for Game 4, inserting Boyd Devereaux. Devereaux played only 6:13, and Thomas was enraged. Lewis called it the most difficult coaching decision he has made since becoming coach at the start of last season.

Early in the third period, after Greg Johnson had pounced on a fat Manny Legace rebound to give the Predators an improbable 3-0 lead on just 10 shots, Lewis made another significant move, lifting Legace for Curtis Joseph.

In case anyone was wondering whether Nashville fans get this game, the sellout crowd that had entertained itself by chanting en masse "Chelios is a sissy" all night broke into a deafening, derisive chant aimed at Joseph, who stopped all nine shots he faced.

"I wanted to change the flavor," said Lewis who has opted for Joseph for the pivotal fifth game Thursday in Detroit. It will be Joseph's first playoff start since the Red Wings were eliminated last spring.

Yzerman, the Red Wings' captain, talked about composure, both in terms of positioning and discipline.

Twice in Game 4, Tomas Holmstrom, whom Trotz complained had taken liberties with the suddenly unflappable Vokoun, was assessed goaltender interference penalties, one of which negated a Robert Lang goal with the Wings trailing 3-0.

"We've played in a lot of playoff series, and we've come out ahead and only had a few goals," Yzerman said. "Our lack of production is hurting us on defense right now because we're losing track of what we're supposed to be doing on the defensive side."

Had the Predators gone out in five games, as many expected they would, winning a home playoff game would have been a significant accomplishment in a season of significant moments. Not bad for a coach who started the series with very modest goals for his team's first two games -- survival.

"Please let us touch the puck once in a while in Detroit," Trotz recalled thinking. "And let's not get blown out."

Now, in the space of a few short days, the Predators are returning to Detroit imbued with the knowledge they can win, while the Red Wings have been reminded once again that none, including the great, are infallible.

"This first round, there are no easy teams to play," Joseph said. "You saw these guys tonight. They were really good."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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