"They were so relentless. Never have I been in retreat mode so much."
-- Columbus defenseman Mike Commodore after being swept by Detroit in the Western Conference Quarterfinals
There's a lesson to be learned from each victory as well as each loss.
For the Detroit Red Wings
, a six-game Western Conference Finals defeat at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks
two years ago was just such a lesson learned.
En route to their first Stanley Cup in 2007, the Ducks physically took it to each and every opponent and trusted that they would score enough, and the defense pairings of Scott Niedermayer
and Francois Beauchemin
, along with Chris Pronger
and Sean O'Donnell
and the goaltending of J-S Giguere would neutralize and frustrate everyone in their way.
The Red Wings didn't feel they were pushed around, but rather they needed to learn to be physically and mentally stronger to win.
Hunger. Dedication. Focus. More of a willingness to take a hit to make a play. A stronger resolve. And a Stanley Cup triumph against the Pittsburgh Penguins
"They were so relentless," said Columbus Blue Jackets
defenseman Mike Commodore
after being swept by the Red Wings in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. "Never have I been in retreat mode so much."
This from a guy who went through runs to the Cup Final with the Calgary Flames
in 2004 and with the Carolina Hurricanes
"Detroit plays the game the right way," Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock said. "For a skill team, they get their noses dirty. They were going for the throat."
This Detroit team is far more mature than the one the Ducks knocked off two years ago. They added Brian Rafalski
's two Stanley Cup rings from New Jersey prior to last season and they've added Marian Hossa
's hunger to finally win ... after losing to the Red Wings in that Pittsburgh series last spring. That, plus adding 13 more Wings to the Stanley Cup mix during their run.
Against Anaheim in '07, Tomas Holmstrom
was just returning from an injury after the conference finals series began. His go-to-the-net game bothered Giguere and the Ducks. Now, Johan Franzen
and Dan Cleary
join Holmstrom as crease crashers regularly -- making the Red Wings more physically engaged more often.
And that, more than anything else, brought a big smile to the face of Wings coach Mike Babcock, after seeing his team win 51 times in the regular season -- topped only by the 53 wins by San Jose and Boston. The Wings took it to the Jackets during the first-round sweep.
"This was a good series for our team," Babcock explained. "We engaged physically early, took control of the series right off the hop, and we didn't give them much room to breathe. To me, we took a significant step."
Ducks coach Randy Carlyle
estimated that 95 percent of Detroit's scoring against Columbus came right at the net.
"We're going to have to be prepared to defend that area vigorously and legally," Carlyle said, emphasizing the fact that his team can't take the kind of needless penalties that got them into trouble early this season because they'd be putting Detroit's potent power play on the ice too often.
Anaheim's turnaround came just before the March 4 trade deadline when the Ducks acquired defensemen Ryan Whitney
from Pittsburgh and James Wisniewski
from Chicago. Then, Beauchemin returned from a knee injury that knocked him out way back in October. Now, Carlyle can toss out Niedermayer and Beauchemin plus Pronger and Whitney at most any time to help keep check on Detroit's deep lines that include Pavel Datsyuk
, Holmstrom and Hossa, plus Henrik Zetterberg
, Franzen and Cleary along with a third line of Valtteri Filppula
, Jiri Hudler
and Mikael Samuelsson
that combined for 53 goals and 137 points in the regular season and was a tough check for Columbus in the first round of the playoffs.
There are those in Anaheim who would say the same thing about trying to handle the Ducks' No. 1 line of Ryan Getzlaf
, Corey Perry
and Bobby Ryan
, who will have to be dealt with.
That's a little more to think about than what Columbus' top line of Rick Nash
, Kristian Huselius
and Manny Malhotra
can throw at you.
But centers Zetterberg and Datsyuk, not to mention the defensive pairing of Nicklas Lidstrom
and Rafalski, love those types of matchups.
"It's a fun challenge," said Zetterberg, who went from Mike Ribeiro
and Brenden Morrow
against Dallas in the Western Conference Finals to taking on Sidney Crosby
and Hossa in the Stanley Cup Final last year.
The Wings' roster has combined for 38 Stanley Cup rings, including four apiece for Lidstrom, Holmstrom, Kris Draper
and Kirk Maltby
. The Ducks have 16 Cups between them, including four by Scott Niedermayer
You want a physical tone, you'll see it here. You want skill, you'll get that too.
This is the kind of matchup that everyone will be watching -- from Boston to Vancouver, Pittsburgh to Chicago and Washington to Raleigh. You can bet that the six other teams left in this year's playoffs will be looking on and trying to learn from this matchup.
It will be that good to watch.