DETROIT – The Red Wings get their first crack at clinching a playoff berth tonight when they host the Nashville Predators at Joe Louis Arena. Detroit can qualify for an amazing 22nd consecutive postseason with a win coupled with a Columbus loss at Dallas tonight.
“We just have to prepare for the process here tonight,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said, following his team’s optional skate this morning. “We’re playing a team that has a bunch of kids that got called up and are playing well. They get (Mike) Fisher back here tonight. They’re going to play hard.”
Thursday’s game will be the last time that the Wings and Predators will meet as Central Division rivals. The Red Wings are scheduled to move to the Eastern Conference next season, while the Predators will remain in the Western Conference.
The playoff race is coming down to a sprint as four teams – the Red Wings, Wild, Blue Jackets and Stars – jockey for the final two spots in the West.
The Predators can make friends in Ohio, Texas and Minnesota if they can squeak out a victory in Detroit. The Red Wings (52 points) are one-point behind Minnesota, who holds down the No. 7 seed, and a point ahead of Columbus. Dallas is the 10th seed, and on life-support, with 48 points and two games remaining, including the season-finale against the Red Wings at American Airlines on Saturday night.
Nashville has gone 1-7-1 in its last nine games while being badly out-scored 31-16. Eleven days ago, it took the Red Wings 57 minutes to get a Johan Franzen goal that gave them some breathing room in a 3-0 win at Bridgestone Arena.
Babcock expects a similar match-up tonight, though the Predators seemingly have nothing to play for, which became obvious this morning when it was announced that backup goalie Chris Mason would get the start against the Red Wings, instead of veteran No. 1 Pekka Rinne.
This season, Mason is 1-2-1 while allowing 14 goals on 98 shots in four starts. His last start was last week when he surrendered five goals on 18 shots in a 5-2 loss to Dallas.
Still, Babcock isn’t ready to let his guard down, especially since his team is playing the second night of a back-to-back.
“Last night you were playing the Stanley Cup champions and tonight you’re playing a team that’s out of the playoffs,” Babcock said. “No disrespect to them, but that sometimes effects your mindset and we can’t let that happen.
“Nashville has played us hard each and every night I’ve been here and has beaten us a bunch so we have to be prepared and start on time.”
PLAYER TO WATCH
D SHEA WEBER – The two-time Norris Trophy runner-up is one of three players to appear in every game for the Predators this season. The others are center David Lewand and defenseman Roman Josi. … Weber leads the Predators with 26 points and registered his sixth multi-point game on the season with two assists in Tuesday’s 4-3 win against Calgary. Weber is the only defensemen in the league ranked among the top 25 at the position in hits (106) and blocked shots (88) while averaging more than 25-minutes of ice-time. … Weber, who made his NHL debut at Joe Louis Arena during the 2005-06 season, has produced nine goals and 12 goals in 44 career games against the Red Wings.
Season Series: 2-0-1
2011-12 Season Series: 3-3-0
All-Time Series Season: 48-24-4-8
Nashville’s Season Record: 16-21-9
Top Scorer vs. Red Wings: David Legwand – 1 Goal, 4 Assists in 9 Games.
Red Wings’ Top Scorer – Pavel Datsyuk – 3 Goals, 8 Assists in 8 Games.
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
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