Less than 24 hours before Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, Red Wings captain Nick Lidstrom was asked if there was one word or one thought that could adequately describe how seamlessly a new defender can fit in the Detroit blue-line picture.
"Ask Brian Rafalski or Brett Lebda," Lidstrom laughed. "They're the ones who are always doing the crossword puzzles."
The conversation came up after the Red Wings lost defenseman Niklas Kronwall just 13:08 into Game 3 with a five-minute interference penalty and a game misconduct for a crushing hit on Chicago’s Martin Havlat. And still, the five remaining Detroit defensemen took the game into overtime -- scoring all three goals in the process -- before the Blackhawks won it, 4-3, just 1:52 into sudden death.
The word that Lidstrom was looking for according to Rafalski and Lebda was four just little letters: "N-I-C-K" ... as in Lidstrom always being there in the “Nick” of time.
"How can you not learn how to be better than just watching Nick
Lidstrom?" Lebda said. "Look at the Norris Trophies as the game's best defenseman and the four Stanley Cups. He's the perfect defenseman."
Rafalski seconded the comment, saying, "Nick makes things look so easy out there on the ice. But, for us, we see the preparation before each game, the focus, the attention to detail. He's simply a champion."
"He's the best defenseman I've played with," said 46-year-old Chris Chelios, who came up with those great Montreal teams that had Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe on defense. "These young kids here come in and all you have to do is say, 'Watch No. 5 and learn by the best example there is out there.' "
For Game 4, Kronwall was back. So was Chelios. But where was Nick?
Lidstrom was out -- scratched from the lineup with a lower body injury, which was the first time he's ever missed a playoff game, ending a streak of 228 games.
22 games over his first 15 NHL seasons.
Big hole for the Red Wings?
You have no idea. For this synergistic Red Wings defense, that meant 26 or so quality minutes out of the Detroit lineup that would normally be handled at his efficient best by Lidstrom would now be gobbled up by Rafalski, Kronwall, Brad Stuart, Jonathan Ericsson, Lebda and Chelios in Game 4.
Whatever your choice of words in describing the seamless transition in Detroit from defense to offense and from adding Rafalski to the lineup at the start of last season and Stuart at the trading deadline and Ericsson in March of this season, the consistency is wonderful to watch.
Lidstrom's words underscore the importance of the Detroit management finding the perfect fits on defense.
"I know this isn't just one word, but, to me, that seamless transition you asked about starts with the personalities the Wings management brings in here,” he said. “They have a pretty good eye for players who have a mental strength you want in a defenseman.
"Kenny Holland and Jim Nill often talk about wanting to move the puck, wanting the defense to make that first quick pass to start the transition. The difference is: The D-men they bring in here have everything we've just talked about. And that makes the transition from year to year so easy."
You knew it had to be a serious injury to keep Lidstrom out of the
lineup, but coach Mike Babcock said he fully expected to see Lidstrom back at practice before Wednesday's Game 5 morning skate in Detroit.
The big story in this game was how this Detroit defense just pulls
together in all situations, the best and the worst like Sunday without Lidstrom.
In Game 4, the Red Wings were penalized just 7:41 into the game. That quick transition game the Detroit defense worked so well without Kronwall in Game 3 took over quickly, when just one minute later the Wings went on top when the defense forced a turnover in the neutral zone and Valtteri Filppula and Marian Hossa broke in two-on-one for a shorthanded goal by Hossa.
Then, with just 20.7 seconds left in the first period, Johan Franzen added another quick-strike goal against Chicago netminder Christobal Huet for a 2-0 lead.
The determined Detroiters made it 3-0 on a power-play rebound goal by Filppula, with an assist to Hossa just 1:13 into the second period. And then, after Jonathan Toews outmuscled Ericsson in front of the net for Chicago's only goal on a power play 3:53 into the second period, the Red Wings made it 5-1 after two periods on Hossa's second goal and the first of two by Henrik Zetterberg. His second goal came 12:47 into the third period and was the third power-play goal to go along with a shorthander.
But Sunday's victory belonged to the defense, which held Chicago to just 28 shots on goal and gave up just one power-play goal on four man-advantage opportunities.
There's no puzzle help needed in Detroit when it comes to defense, which starts and ends with an accountability in the Wings zone and a confident mobility -- starting with a quick transitional first pass to quick and explosive forwards through the neutral zone.