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Everyone needs to lay off the Red Wings

by Larry Wigge
In this results-first, bottom-line, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, we've become a little jaded. We want it all. And we want a variety of the best of what we've already seen.

Have you noticed how many Coca Cola products are out there now? There's caffeine free, diet, cherry and on and on. And did you ever think you'd order a coffee and hear yourself say you want a half-mocha, caramel macchiato? All I know is the Whopper I had today was a little too dry for my taste, and with weather like this, well ...

And that instant analysis in sports, well, it's 10 times as tough as it needs to be. Think about it for a moment. We see the New England Patriots go 16-0 and pick nits about their running game. Or remember the last save Brad Lidge didn't finish? Or when was the last time LeBron James had three straight triple-doubles? And how many times did you go through your college basketball bracket before you turned it in?

Hockey's no different.

We see the Detroit Red Wings give up five, eight and eight goals on successive Saturdays in late February and March and we're certain that long run to the Stanley Cup last spring can't possibly be repeated, right? For me, the analytical world we live in today has gone too close to the edge of negativity for my liking (and for the record the Red Wings were 10-1-1 in their first 12 Saturday games this season).

Don't the Red Wings still have Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski and Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart on defense? Isn't that still Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom and Dan Cleary up front? And isn't it good enough that the Wings added Marian Hossa to their lineup for a shot at repeating?

Did I forget something? Oh yeah. the goaltending. But aren't you the same fans that said the Red Wings could win in spite of having Chris Osgood in goal? In 1998? And again last spring?

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock won't point to his team's save percentage this season and point out that their .893 number is not as good as Colorado's .894, and they're not going to the playoffs. Nor will he wonder aloud why it is that no one talks about Calgary's defense, when the Flames have given up more goals than the Red Wings. Neither will Lidstrom.

"It's a long year. You're going to have your ups and downs," Lidstrom said recently. "Ozzie's really been battling out there these last few games."

Said Osgood, "You want to prepare yourself for the playoffs. If you're not at the top of your game and you're not playing well, you'll get beat. That's all I'm thinking about ... I'm getting there."

Following a 3-2 victory against Philadelphia on March 17, Osgood had five wins in his past six starts. He had allowed two goals or fewer in all five wins, including two shutouts. Still, Osgood knows the territory. He sees the fingers being pointed in his direction.

"It was a tough start to the year -- not to get motivated, but just to get my head in the right spot for me to be a good goalie in this League," Osgood said. "The last two months ..."

His voice trailed off, as if he was recalling the recent 10-day break he got to get his mind and technique in shape for the playoff run.

"I've felt good, real good, in this last stretch," Osgood said. "What can I say? I grew up idolizing (former Edmonton Oilers star) Grant Fuhr. He prided himself on winning games and being able to make saves at the right time. The rest, the style points, that stuff ... it doesn't matter."

"We're optimistic Ozzie's game is going in the right direction," said Babcock. "We need his game to go in the right direction. We need solid goaltending down the stretch and the playoffs.

"People, when they talk about Ozzie, often don't look at him in the same light (as other top goalies). Look at the numbers he's put up. They're mind-boggling. All I know is we're optimistic his game is going in the right direction."

"The perception outside of this locker room has always been that we won because of our skill and we lost because of our goaltending," said Red Wings GM Ken Holland. "That's not true at all. Because we don't give up many chances, we need big saves at the right times. That's the kind of goaltender Chris Osgood is. He can focus and block out all the distractions to make that one key save.

"In situations like that, I don't think Ozzie even knows there's pressure."

Instant analysis?

"Coach has been putting us through a lot of three-on-three and five-on-five drills of late," Lidstrom said. "We're getting back to where we need to be."

Said Babcock: "Yeah, I've been driving them crazy with those drills. But they are good for accountability. They are good for knowing that you have to be there for the guys next to you when it counts."

What I'm saying is it's easy to pick out a few warts -- like those eight-goal games -- and say this season's Red Wings are not physical enough to withstand the long haul in the playoffs against a tougher opponent. But this basically is the same team that went to the Western Conference Finals in 2007 and won it the Cup in 2008. And a month from now you're going to be wondering what happened? How did the Red Wings turn it on so quickly?

"I can taste another long run," Lidstrom said. "I can feel it in this room. The guys are getting that focused look in their eyes."

We all see the numbers. Those save percentages. The penalty-killing problems the Wings had a month ago. We can pick nits with the best of them. But couch-potato analysts don't win Stanley Cup rings. The games are won on the ice, in competition, by winning battles.

"Whenever you play that team, you fight two things," said St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray. "They always seem to have the puck, and when they don't have the puck they're fighting to get it back."

Added Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock: "I don't care who plays Detroit. If they decide to play with that relentless-to-the-puck style that they play so well, not many teams are going to beat them ... and nobody is going to beat them in a series.

"If they play that way, teams are going to be lucky to win a game against them."

The bottom line here is these same Wings have been through the playoff grind and know what it takes to win.

And that, well, it's as good as it gets.

Fighting ... about fighting -- When the NHL's general managers met in Florida recently, the conversations led to them nearly coming to blows on several fronts. But not about these drop-the-puck and drop-the-gloves staged fights we're seeing more of these days.

"Fighting is like a thermometer, it forces the accountability toward the other players," Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough said. "But I see no value in two guys fighting at center ice before the play starts. What has caused that? Fighting is supposed to be a reaction to something that's happened.

"With that, there's no reaction because there's no action. The only action is the fight."

A heavy thought -- Ales Kotalik is feeling the pressure in his first days with the Edmonton Oilers, who expect the forward to be a piece of the puzzle to get more of those great skills out of linemate Ales Hemsky.

"Nobody expects more from me than me," said Kotalik, who was acquired from Buffalo for a second-round draft choice on trade-deadline day. "I have to get the production going. But the more you think about it, the more your hands and your legs feel heavy.

"You try to stay positive, but it gets to your head. You get frustrated, especially when you come to a new team and a lot is expected of you."

Net losses ... and gains -- The recent struggles of the Chicago Blackhawks have been perceived goaltending glitches. Can the return of Nikolai Khabibulin cure those ills?

"You can't expect one guy to change something like that," Khabibulin said. "We all have to do our jobs."

Those jobs become easier when the goaltender does his job, right?

"His presence should help solidify the net," said coach Joel Quenneville. "Everyone gains confidence when he's in there."

No Thrashing of Kovalchuk here -- Netting 25 goals in 30 games after being named captain puts Ilya Kovalchuk in a pretty safe place with coach John Anderson. Forget the trade rumors. Anderson wants Kovalchuk to be a part of the Atlanta Thrashers when they arrive as consistent playoff contenders.

Said Anderson, "Kovy plays on a three-level chess board while the rest of us are playing checkers."

Ready for baseball? -- San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan wasn't suggesting his team quit now and get ready to watch the upcoming baseball season. Far from it. He was just using a baseball analogy to get his players to be more aggressive down the stretch.

"I'd like to see some guys step up to the plate and swing the bat," he said. "When the game's on the line, they want to hit a single or double that scores the winning run rather than walking. I want to see guys take the challenge on a little bit more."

Of course, it also helps McLellan and the Sharks now that Evgeni Nabokov is back in goal after missing seven games with the flu.

Front and center -- When the Columbus Blue Jackets acquired R.J. Umberger from Philadelphia in the offseason, there were visions of him centering Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius. But his speed on the wing is Umberger's best asset. While the Jackets still are trying to find the right center for Nash and Huselius, they have the right spot for Umberger -- alongside Antoine Vermette.

It doesn't matter who's at center, as both players think quick and hit the holes.

Said Umberger, "Antoine thinks quick and makes decisions so fast he keeps the other team on their heels."

Ditto for Umberger.

Lightning striker -- Tampa Bay officials deny trying to trade Martin St. Louis before the deadline. One thing that is certain: St. Louis is one of only six players in the League who were leading their teams in points and plus-minus. He had 25 goals, 67 points and was a plus-6, quite an accomplishment considering the Lightning scored 49 fewer goals than they allowed.

Said Lightning coach Rick Tocchet: "I'd put him up against anybody in the League. You're out there to protect a goal, you're out there to put pressure on somebody, he'd be the guy you'd put out there. He's one of the top guys in the League."

Things that make you go hmm … -- With Pittsburgh's 6-2 victory against Atlanta on March 17, Dan Bylsma ran his record to 11-1-3 in his first 15 games as an NHL coach. He became only the sixth coach in League history to amass 25 points in his first 15 NHL games. He's the second to do it this season, following San Jose's Todd McLellan, who had 26 points (13-2-0) in his first 15 games. The other coaches to do it were Dave Gill (26 points, 12-1-2), Hap Day (26 points, 13-2-0), Marc Crawford (26 points, 13-2-0) and Alex Curry (25 points, 12-2-1). ... Speaking of coaches, the number of coaches to be dismissed since Lindy Ruff took over in Buffalo in 1997 is up to 129. ... No, those aren't rose-colored glasses Edmonton Oilers captain Ethan Moreau is wearing. He's wearing a tinted visor because his pupil is permanently dilated following an eye injury in February. The tint is designed to cut down on the glare he sees through the dilated eye. ... One night after Martin Brodeur surpassed Patrick Roy with his 552nd career win, Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff posted his 200th NHL win. And he did it in the same number of games it took Brodeur to reach that milestone -- 374. The difference? Kiprusoff is 32. Brodeur had 404 wins when he turned 32. ... Overshadowed by Brodeur setting the NHL record for career wins by a goaltender, Patrik Elias became the Scouts/Rockies/Devils franchise leader in points with his assist on Brian Gionta's goal in the second period. It was Elias's 702nd point for New Jersey, breaking a tie with John MacLean. ... The notoriously defensive-minded Devils had 43 shots on goal in their 4-2 loss at Carolina on March 18. It was the third time in March that New Jersey had that many or more shots on goal in one game. The last time the Devils had at least 43 shots on goal three times in a calendar month was in December 2000. ... With the third of his five points in Pittsburgh's March 17 victory against Atlanta, Evgeni Malkin became the first NHL player to reach the 100-point plateau this season. It's the 11th time a Pittsburgh player has been the first to 100 in a season. The other Penguins to do it were Mario Lemieux (six times), Jaromir Jagr (three times) and Sidney Crosby (once). ... Power forwards? Keith Tkachuk is one -- and his power-play goal in the Blues' 5-3 win against the Wild on March 15 was the 206th of his career. That broke a tie with Joe Sakic for second among active players, trailing only Brendan Shanahan, who has 237. ... There's a hurricane watch in Carolina every time the Hurricanes face the Washington Capitals. It's not Alex Ovechkin, though; Alexander Semin, has scored goals in each of his last eight games against Carolina, dating to February 2008 (10 total goals). He's only the fourth player ever to score goals in eight or more consecutive games against the Whalers/Hurricanes franchise, joining Michel Goulet (who had a 13-game streak vs. Hartford from 1981-83), Mario Lemieux (nine games, 1986-89) and Vincent Lecavalier (eight games, 2007). ... Bet you didn't know that over the last 15 years, the only Los Angeles Kings player other than Luc Robitaille to get 60 or more points in three consecutive seasons is Anze Kopitar. ... Antoine Vermette had 7 points in his first six games with Columbus, after getting only 28 points in 62 games with the Senators. His overtime goal against Chicago on March 13 was the first overtime goal he had scored in more than 400 NHL games. ... No Brenden Morrow or Sergei Zubov, but the Dallas Stars still have found a way to drive on. Not the case with losing Brad Richard with a broken wrist. The Stars were 4-7-1 in their first 12 games without Richards. ... Bet you didn't know that aside from Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius, no other player on the Columbus Blue Jackets has produced more points than Jason Williams (8 goals, 11 assists in 26 games) since he was acquired from Carolina on Jan. 14. ... You couldn't say the Boston Bruins were exactly flaming hot since acquiring defensemen Steve Montador from Anaheim. But you get the pun if you check the remainder of the Boston roster and notice ex-Flames Marc Savard, Stephane Yelle, Chuck Kobasew and Andrew Ference. Montador, Yelle, Kobasew and Ference were part of Calgary's run to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final. And oddly enough, that foursome is almost equal to Calgary's current roster, which has just six left from that 2004 run. ... Bet you didn't know Marek Zidlicky and Marc-Andre Bergeron (with 11 goals apiece) have become the first tandem of defensemen in Minnesota Wild history to score 10 or more goals in the same season. ... Buffalo defenseman Jaroslav Spacek, who had only one goal in 47 games before the All-Star break, has scored seven times since then. That total is third-most among Buffalo players, behind Drew Stafford's 10 goals and Tim Connolly's 8. ... The Atlanta Thrashers are flashing a pretty exciting young defense, led by 2008 first-round pick Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom and Anssi Salmela, recently acquired from New Jersey for Niclas Havelid. Atlanta coach John Anderson said of Bogosian, "When he's carrying the puck around the net, I'm thinking, 'Oh my goodness, he looks like a young Ray Bourque.'"

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