A year ago at this time the Predators were on their way to a first-round series win over rival Detroit. One could argue it’s the biggest moment in franchise history, slaying the dragon that has haunted them so much for so long.
Some will say that no matchup is a rivalry until both teams have won. The Predators had finally gotten the best of Detroit, with Mike Babcock praising the Predators after the series. Not to mention, Shea Weber became a hated individual in Detroit and there seemed to be a palpable distaste for the Predators in the Motor City.
For once it truly felt like a rivalry.
Unfortunately, this past Sunday was the last time the Red Wings will come to Nashville as a divisional foe; next Thursday will be the last time, period, when the Predators go to Detroit. With realignment set to begin in 2013-14, the Red Wings are headed to the Eastern Conference and will only play Nashville twice a season.
“I think it’ll remain for a while,” Trotz said of the rivalry. “Those things remain for a year or so and then as time as passes, just like anything, you’ll have new rivals. There’s probably a year in there where you’re probably good, but past that I think it starts to fade a little bit.”
Detroit and Nashville have met three times in the playoffs in the last nine years. The dislike for one another seemed to reach a crescendo last spring when the Predators finally eliminated the Red Wings in a playoff setting. Just as the rivalry found a new level, the NHL has pulled the rug out from under any potential the two teams had of building it up any further.
Chicago and Detroit each have a bigger beef with the league, as their longtime Original Six rivalry dating back to the early 1900s will be affected. But the Red Wings are the Predators’ lone true rival, and the Predators are disappointed to see their enemy changing conferences.
“It’s unfortunate to lose that [rivalry], because the fans here always look forward to it and I know us players always do, too,” said Chris Mason, who has experienced the rivalry firsthand at different stages. “Playing them two times instead of six or eight times is going to be a little different.”
Realignment offers an opportunity for Nashville to gain new rivals. Chicago and/or St. Louis could become the new “biggest rival,” while Dallas and Minnesota both have potential for instant hatred.
But it just won’t be the same.
From the Predators’ perspective, there’s nothing like a Red Wings game on 501 Broadway.
Every time the Winged Wheel rolls into Music City, the intensity kicks up a notch and the games have a playoff atmosphere – no matter what the date is. Chicago fans may invade the town a few times a year, but there’s just something special about Predators vs. Red Wings in Smashville. Outside of a playoff game, the setting is unmatched compared to other home games.
“[The Red Wings] always have fans here and they’re loud fans. I think that’s what makes it fun to play against them,” said Kevin Klein.
When you think about the Predators’ top moments in franchise history, many have come against the Red Wings. The inaugural playoff series, back-to-back wins in Detroit in 2006, Game 3 in 2008, the 8-0 game, the iconic image of Weber shaking Nicklas Lidstrom’s hand after the 2012 series.
For many years, the Red Wings were the model franchise to Nashville. They were the gold standard that David Poile, Barry Trotz and company tried to replicate or surpass. Last spring they got rid of that measuring stick when, for the first time, they finished ahead of them in the standings and beat them in the playoffs.
“It’s one of those things where we’ve had good playoff series against them,” Klein said. “We got past that hurdle last year, which was really nice, but it’s disappointing that we won’t see them very often.”
There is an assumption out there that Detroit heading to the East will weaken the rivalry between these two teams – and it’s hard to think of any other result from this. As Trotz mentioned, the rivalry may have the same effect in upcoming seasons but over time that mutual hatred could wear off and feel like just another inter-conference contest.
It may not change much in the stands, as it’s been a natural rivalry in Nashville since Day 1 due to the vast amount of Michigan natives living in Middle Tennessee. Beginning next season, the lone occasion Detroit comes to town will certainly be a tough ticket. Everyone will be trying to get in the building for what will now be a rare, once-a-season event.
But all in all, this could be the end of the only true rivalry the Predators have ever had. After squaring off in back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, Detroit and Pittsburgh haven’t really maintained a rivalry like some expected or hoped. It’s just difficult to maintain a rivalry when teams are facing off once or twice a season.
It’s sad that the Red Wings games won’t have the same feel after next Thursday’s meeting, which will be the last time they meet up as division rivals. As dominant as Detroit has been over the years, no matter how much they may have had Nashville’s number, they have been the focal point to many great memories in Predators history.
“There’s no better feeling than playing a rival,” Mason said. “Those games are definitely going to be missed.”