Chances are the Nashville Predators have avoided looking over their shoulder for fear of who might be catching them. Now it doesn’t matter because on Friday, they come face-to-face with one their closest pursuers, the Detroit Red Wings.
The Predators, who have lost four straight, have 61 points, which is two more than the Red Wings, who have lost three in a row (one in overtime). Currently Detroit, which has played one more game than Nashville, is in ninth place in the Western Conference standings and, therefore, outside of the current playoff picture.
“When you have an opportunity to go head-to-head, those are the ones that, if you don’t get them … leave a sting,” coach Barry Trotz said. “… Right now you look at the standings and you look at the games, it’s always very cliché but every game is going to be the biggest game of the year because you don’t know what the difference is going to be in the end.”
Much of the season, there has been little that has separated the two. The Predators, who never have finished ahead of Detroit in the division standings, have maintained a cushion throughout recent weeks as both have tried to keep pace with Central Division front-runner, Chicago.
A breakdown of how the Predators and Red Wings have matched up over the course of the current season:
• Through 10 games: Nashville 3-6-1, 7 points; Detroit 4-4-2, 10 points
• Through 20 games: Nashville 11-8-1, 23 points; Detroit 10-6-4, 24 points
• Through 30 games: Nashville 17-11-2, 36 points; Detroit 14-11-5 33 points
• Through 40 games: Nashville 23-14-3, 49 points; Detroit 20-14-6 46 points
• Through 50 games: Nashville 29-18-3, 61 points; Detroit 25-17-8 58 points
Friday’s contest (6:30 p.m., Fox Sports-Tennessee) is Nashville’s first of three visits this season to Joe Louis Arena and the halfway point of the season series between the division rivals. The teams split the first two meetings, although the Predators’ loss on Dec. 12 came in overtime, which means they have earned three points to Detroit’s two in head-to-head meetings.
"It’s big, obviously,” center David Legwand said. “They’re getting healthy. Points now count for as much as they do in March and April. We need to … get some wins and get out game back.”
After Friday, the teams will play again March 5 at Detroit, March 27 at Sommet Center and April 3 at Detroit.
“The remaining games (with Detroit) are all going to be so important,” defenseman Francis Bouillon said. “They’re going to be four-point games and they’re going to be like playoff games every time.
“It’s going to be interesting to the end of the season. It’s going to be a pretty good race.”
• Dan Ellis will be the Predators’ starting goalie at Detroit. No decision has been made on who will play Saturday against Atlanta (7 p.m., Sommet Center).
That is a change from the first two games this season. Pekka Rinne made 30 saves on 31 shots in a victory on Nov. 23 and stopped 26 of 29 on Dec. 12.
• Forward Joel Ward (groin) will make the trip to Detroit, but both he and Trotz agreed it is “unlikely” he will play. Marcel Goc (upper body) will not travel and will miss his second consecutive contests. Wade Belak (foot) also is not expected to play.
• Forward Andreas Thuresson was recalled on Thursday, It was the third time he has been added to the NHL roster. Most recently, he was sent back to Milwaukee on Jan. 19.
The rookie has one goal and two assists in 21 games for Nashville, and seven goals and eight assists in 24 games for Milwaukee.