NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Detroit is the team Predators fans love to hate. They don't call them the Chicken Wings for nothing. Yet ask the Predators players about their division rival, and all anyone will acknowledge is respect.
Nashville forward Scott Nichol even broke out a compliment, calling the Red Wings a great team.
"When you play good teams, it brings the best out of you. We always get excited to play Detroit. It's a good measuring stick for us, and we always come with a lot of energy and a lot of excitement. When we do that, it's fun to play. Those games are fun to play. The fans and the crowd are going to be wild," Nichol said.
Added forward Martin Erat: "If you're playing the first game of the season against them or in the playoffs against them, it's a natural respect."
But respect doesn't mean these teams like each other. They play each other far too much for that.
The Red Wings are NHL royalty, the home of Hockeytown. They have Stanley Cups, playoff appearances and President's Trophies.
Well, their home remains Music City USA, where fans still aren't sure if this team deserves their support after 10 seasons. They measure success with four playoff appearances, even though they have only four combined wins in the first three trips.
Central Division rival Detroit is the team the Predators have measured themselves against ever since their start as an expansion franchise. The Predators insist that breeds respect, not bad blood, as these teams prepare for their Western Conference quarter-final series starting Thursday in Detroit.
"There's a little bit of a divisional rivalry that has fostered over the years," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "The competitive level and the competitive juices will be high on both sides. That's a good thing."
Captain Jason Arnott calls it a strong rivalry.
"We know them really well, as they know us really well," he said.
Detroit has played, and dominated, Nashville since the Predators broke into the NHL in 1998. It was Detroit that Nashville first played in the post-season in 2004. Adam Hall scored 16 seconds into Game 1 for the quickest goal surrendered by the Red Wings in their playoff history before Detroit pulled out the series in six games.
The rivalry couldn't have been much tighter this season.
Nashville went 3-3-2 against Detroit, including a stretch of 22 days in March during which the teams played four times. The Red Wings won three of those, with three decided by one goal. The final game March 30 was a 1-0 overtime win in Detroit, and the Red Wings outscored Nashville 20-19 overall this season.
"Every single game, it was like a playoff game every time we played them. It really was," Arnott said. "Hopefully, it carries on, and I'm sure it'll be even more emotional and more exciting."
The fans also add a unique twist to a rivalry that needed only a hockey team in Nashville to get started. Many Red Wings fans call Tennessee home, including workers who relocated for GM's auto plant south of Nashville. They wear their Detroit red and white colours proudly and probably will help the Predators sell out Games 3 and 4.
"Our fans are going to be here for us in Nashville. I'm sure there are going to be Detroit fans in the stands, and no question, our fans are a lot louder than theirs and they're behind us all year long," Arnott said.