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Alfredsson to Red Wings brings new playoff turn

by Brian Hedger

DETROIT -- Daniel Alfredsson left behind 17 seasons of memories with the Ottawa Senators, including the last 14 as captain, to chase an elusive Stanley Cup championship with the Detroit Red Wings.

It was a decision which uprooted one of hockey's most familiar faces from the place he'd spent his entire NHL career. It was a life-changing moment, but from a hockey aspect, it made sense.

Alfredsson, 41, was enticed by Detroit's 22-year streak of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the four Cup championships the Red Wings had claimed, including the most recent in 2008, since Alfredsson joined the League.

"That's what you play for, to get into the playoffs," Alfredsson said, after the Red Wings overcame a slew of injuries to clinch a postseason spot for the 23rd straight season. "I played a long time in this League, played a lot of playoff games, but haven't won the Stanley Cup. That's what you dream about. That's the only reason I'm still playing, I guess."

Following a season in which they nearly upset the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in a Western Conference Semifinal series, the Red Wings dreamed about adding some offense. Alfredsson, an unrestricted free agent who hadn't signed a contract extension with the Senators, was a highly skilled right wing with a right-hand shot and loads of leadership experience.

As it turned out, after more than 400 man-games lost during an injury-plagued season, Detroit needed Alfredsson's leadership as much as the points he provided.

Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg and alternate captain Pavel Datsyuk, forward Johan Franzen, center Darren Helm and center Stephen Weiss, who signed as a free agent the same day Alfredsson, all missed 20 or more games at some point. Datsyuk and Zetterberg form two-thirds of Detroit's top line at the start of the season.

Weiss will miss the postseason, while Datsyuk, Franzen and Helm are back in the lineup. Zetterberg hopes to return in the playoffs at some point. In their absences, a slew of Red Wings prospects made their NHL debuts, trying to fill the enormous talent void on the ice.

Alternate captain Niklas Kronwall took over most the leadership responsibilities in the locker room, along with other veterans, but Alfredsson was right there to help. As a result, the Red Wings were able to overcome pretty long odds and find a path into the playoffs, giving Alfredsson the opportunity he sought to chase the Cup.

"He's been everything we hoped for," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "Unfortunately, some of the people we'd hoped he would play with, many or most of them [were injured]. We never really had the entire team together as we really projected it in the summer time. So, he's done a real good job."

On the ice, Alfredsson stepped right into the top power-play unit and contributed with a good shot from the right point.

Alfredsson was among Detroit's leaders in shots, logged about 17 minutes a game and had no problem bouncing around in the lineup, playing the right side on each of the top three lines at different points.

"In Ottawa, we switched up lines all the time," Alfredsson said. "You've got to be ready. Today, everybody plays the same way. You know the breakouts, you know the faceoff plays ... it's not like, 'OK, I'm out here with two new guys, what do I have to do?' We all know what to do, so that has been no issue for me at all."

Getting acquainted with a new city, after moving his family from Ottawa to suburban Detroit, was more of a hurdle. It took a while to get used to the new surroundings, but Alfredsson said he and his family are now content and stronger for going through the change.

"Just trying something different or new, it opens up your eyes in a lot of ways," Alfredsson said. "On and off the ice, I think it's been great here. It's been challenging as well, and that's one way I was looking at it too, and how we were looking at it as a family. We were growing as a family. You've got to put yourself in situations where you don't know everything all the time. You kind of push yourself in that sense, and that's definitely been the case for us."

It was the case for his hockey team too.

After winning their first two games following the 2014 Sochi Olympics, in which Alfredsson helped Sweden win the silver medal, the Red Wings went 2-4-1 in a seven-game stretch which caused many to assume the playoff streak would end.

Instead, Detroit responded by going 7-2-1 in its next 10 games, including win streaks of three and four games. Alfredsson played in all but one of those games, scoring four goals and assisting on five. Three of his game-winning goals were scored during that span.

"He's been up and down our lineup, he's been excellent on the point on the power play, he's good defensively and he's pushing 20 goals," Holland said. "So, for a team that desperately needed goal-scoring, given all the injuries we've had, he's been a real important guy."

That won't change in the playoffs, even if Zetterberg is able to return.

Detroit's veteran leadership group will merely have one more strong voice in the locker room to provide guidance through the postseason. In a way, it will be a little like the past for the Red Wings, who've thrived on an abundance of veteran leadership for a couple decades.

The retirement of former captain Nicklas Lidstrom and his defense partner, Brian Rafalski, ate into that stockpile a bit last season. Alfredsson gives some of it back.

"He speaks up when he needs to," Franzen said. "He's good like that. He's not the guy who's going to sit and throw out cliches all night long, but if someone needs to step up and say something, he's been doing that. He's been doing a great job."

"Alfie" hasn't lost sight of the ultimate goal, either.

He'll decide in the summer whether to give it another run next season, but for now his focus is squarely on Stanley Cup which has eluded his grasp to date.

"I think everybody, wherever you play in today's League, you think you can win," Alfredsson said. "Pretty much everybody talks about, 'Make the playoffs and anything can happen,' and I think we definitely feel that with this team. We've been playing playoff hockey for the past little while and it's going to be the same going forward. I think that's going to be an advantage."

The Red Wings hope he's right. They also hope to hand the Cup off to Alfredsson for a long-awaited hoist.

"That's something everybody's thought about," Detroit defenseman Brendan Smith said. "That's the reason he chose to come here. That's a huge thing, so for sure he'd be one of those guys if you did win, he'll be the second guy to lift it; that kind of thing. It's just a little thing in the back of our heads, obviously. We're going step-by-step and game-by-game, but for sure that's something that would be pretty cool."

Franzen thinks it could be galvanizing.

"When we won the Cup in [2008], we had Dallas Drake coming in and hadn't won a Cup yet," he said. "That brings the team together a little bit more, actually, and you really want to dig deep down to do it for those guys."

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