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The Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings already have clinched playoff spots. The Central Division title, however, is still up for grabs.
Separated by just two points at the top of the division, the Predators and Red Wings meet Thursday night in Nashville in a matchup that could go a long way in determining the division winner and the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Nashville (49-21-7) is coming off two straight wins over Edmonton to take hold of the West's best record with five games left to play. Detroit (46-19-11) trails the Predators by two points with a game in hand, and the Red Wings have dominated the season series, going 5-1-1 including three straight wins.
Jiri Hudler had three goals and an assist as the Red Wings swept a home-and-home series March 13-14.
The Red Wings snapped a four-game skid with a 1-0 victory over Pacific Division-leading Anaheim on Monday, and hopes to build on that as the postseason approaches.
"You get to this point in the season and you're just dying for the playoffs to start," Red Wings defenseman Mathieu Schneider said. "Anytime you come up against a team that's a potential rival in the playoffs, you want to raise your game and I thought we did that tonight."
Dominik Hasek stopped 25 shots for his seventh shutout of the season, tying him with Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff for the Western Conference lead.
"He just does what he always does," Schneider said. "He always gives us a chance to win the game."
The Red Wings could use some of that sparkling defense Thursday, as they face a Nashville team that leads the West with 259 goals scored.
The Predators' quick-strike offense was on display in a 4-3 win over Edmonton on Tuesday night. Nashville gave up two goals in the first six minutes of the third period to fall behind 3-2. Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont scored 2:19 apart later in the period and Tomas Vokoun made the lead stand up by finishing with 24 saves.
"It was just a case of it going back and forth," said Predators forward Vernon Fiddler, who assisted on a goal in the second period. "You don't really want to get in those games, but at the end of the day, we got the two points. That's most important."
Vokoun is 1-2-1 with a 3.36 goals-against average versus Detroit this season. Backup Chris Mason has a slightly better 3.06 GAA against Detroit this season, but only is 1-2-0.
The Predators will play the second game of a season-high five-game homestand. Nashville is among the league's best home teams with a 27-6-4 record at Gaylord Enterainement Center.
"The way we look at it right now, with five games (left), we have to go out there and win every game," Dumont said. "It's going to be a race (until) the end of the season and right now, I like our situation."
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