Predators GM David Poile acquired Hal Gill for this time of year. At the time of the trade, Poile figured the veteran defenseman would make an impact beyond Game 82. Up to that point Gill was really effective; however, he was unable to play in the first round against Detroit due to a lower-body injury he suffered on April 5 against Dallas.
Without the 6-foot-7 behemoth taking up a lot of ice and without his veteran presence on the blue-line, the Predators still eliminated the Red Wings in five games. In those five games the Predators gave up just nine goals – a strong testament to the collective effort by the defense in Gill’s absence.
“We’ve got so many guys that step up at every opportunity,” said Kevin Klein, who elevated his game to new heights in the first round.
The Predators used seven defensemen in the series. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter were their usual selves as the league’s top tandem. Ryan Ellis (three games) and Jack Hillen (two games) played limited minutes, meaning Klein and Roman Josi were forced to log more ice-time than they were accustomed to. Francis Bouillon even had to kick his game up a notch.
It didn’t faze them.
Klein played the series of his life. Bouillon didn’t look like a 37-year-old. Josi and Ellis didn’t look like rookies. Hillen didn’t show any signs of rust after seeing limited action down the stretch.
Despite the shot-count discrepancies (160-116 in Detroit’s favor in the series), the defensive depth rose to the occasion and made a big difference against a team that features the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen up front.
“For us to be successful, we need everyone to contribute,” Suter said. “This series (the defense) was huge. It’s a good thing we have going right now, is a lot of depth.”
Though the penalty kill surrendered four goals on 23 power plays against, the Predators held the Red Wings – the NHL’s best 5-on-5 team in the regular season – to just four goals while at 5-on-5. In fact, in those situations the Predators outscored the Red Wings 11-4.
On top of the obvious suspects, Weber and Suter, the depth on defense had a lot to do with that success.
Klein was an unsung hero offensively for the first round, scoring two big goals in Games Three and Four. But he was even better on the other end of the ice, doing all the little things to shut down Detroit’s attack.
Klein’s most important moment came in Game Three when he saved a one-goal lead in the third period by getting the shaft of his stick in the way of Cory Emmerton’s shot in front of an open net. With the series tied at 1-1 at the time, and with Detroit holding the momentum at the time of play, it may have been the turning point of the series.
“That really changed the game. We could be sitting here in a totally different situation without that block,” goaltender Pekka Rinne said Thursday of Klein’s play. “That’s how big players step up when it’s a big moment in the game.”
The team’s plus/minus leader wasn’t Weber or Suter, it wasn’t one of the top forwards – it was Bouillon, who ended the series with a plus-6 rating. Bouillon also finished second on the blue-line with 10 hits in the series.
“You talk about a veteran; a veteran always has a lot of pride when it comes to the game and they always seem to elevate their game at playoff time. Frankie’s just one of those guys that gives you everything he’s got,” head coach Barry Trotz said prior to Game Five.
“Pound for pound he’s as tough mentally and physically as anybody you’re going to meet. … He knows the importance of each and every shift in the playoffs, and he’s really elevated his game.”
Josi averaged 20 minutes a night (playing in Gill’s place on the penalty kill helped spike those numbers) and seemed to improve and look more comfortable with each passing game. Hillen and Ellis both made smart decisions in their own right, finishing with less than eight minutes of average ice-time in the series.
All of this was done without Gill, their key trade deadline defense acquisition, against the Red Wings – in a five-game series win no less.
“Everybody stepped up on the blue-line. When you’re going to get tested and pushed and prodded in a lot of different ways – that group really stepped up and they were really huge,” Trotz said. “Obviously Peks is the backbone of our defense, but it was just a great job by the group.”