|If Johan Franzen is able to return to Detroit's lineup during the Stanley Cup Final, Pittsburgh goalie Marc Andre-Fleury should be prepared to get up close and personal with the forward.
's reputation was growing in Bunyanesque proportions before he was sidelined in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals by concussion-like symptoms.
The Red Wings hope the 28-year-old late bloomer will be ready to contribute to the Detroit's "Big Red Machine." He hasn't played since his tally in Game 1 against Dallas gave him a playoff-high 12 goals in 11 games and goals in five straight games, tying a team record shared by legends Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Howe accomplished the feat in 1949 and repeated it in 1964; Lindsay did it in 1952.
Franzen had nine goals in Detroit's four-game sweep of the Colorado Avalanche, matching Colorado's output as a team and setting a franchise record for goals in a playoff series set by Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, who had eight goals in a seven-game series back in 1949. Franzen also became the first player to get two hat tricks in the same series since Edmonton's Hall of Famer Jari Kurri had three against Chicago 23 years ago.
"I have to pinch myself to believe it's true," Franzen said after scoring nine times on 23 shots against Colorado. "I don't think I'll ever have the kind of success I had in this series again."
Maybe. Maybe not.
Since being given a shot at playing in some offensive situations when injuries sidelined power forwards Tomas Holmstrom and Dan Cleary, the 6-foot-3, 218-pounder from Landsbro, Sweden, has 27 goals in 28 games dating to March 2. He had just 26 goals in 173 games in his first two seasons with the Red Wings, counting the playoffs.
There are those in Hockeytown trying to compare Franzen's burst onto the scene with another Swedish power forward some 10 years ago. But Holmstrom, known for his crease-crashing tactics of screening goalies, deflecting shots and scoring on rebounds, never had the speed and skill that Franzen does.
Holmstrom broke through for the Red Wings when they won the Stanley Cup in 1998, scoring seven goals and piling up 19 points. The seven goals were two more than Holmstrom had in 57 regular-season games.
Veteran center Kris Draper said he's seen a lot in his three Stanley Cup seasons in Detroit to know when he's looking at someone pretty special.
"I played with a bunch of Hall of Famers -- Stevie Y (Yzerman), Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull. What the Mule did was unbelievable," Draper said, using Franzen's nickname. "But in some ways, it's not surprising because he's working hard at both ends of the rink and he's getting tough goals, going to those areas where you have to score at this time of year."
That's pretty heady stuff, especially for someone who never had a hint that a career in the NHL might beckon until European scout Hakan Andersson called him in June 2004 to tell him the Red Wings had selected him in the third round, 97th overall, of the NHL Entry Draft.
"I figured I could make a good living playing in the Swedish Elite League. Never gave the NHL a thought until that day in June in 2004 when I got a call from Hakan Andersson to tell me that Detroit had picked me in the Draft," Franzen recalled. "I was 25 at the time. I didn't know exactly what it meant, but everyone back home knows about the success of the Red Wings because of Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom and the rest of the players they've picked from Sweden and around the world. So, that made me wonder if I had a chance."
Franzen still wondered what this all meant.
"I was a real late bloomer," he said. "Didn't start playing hockey at anything other than a lower tier hockey back home until I was 19. I wasn't drafted by the NHL until I was 25. I'd say that's a late bloomer, wouldn't you?
"Back in Landsbro, I had to get a job in the summer. I remember working at a metal factory. I also remember working in a window company. And I hated every minute of it. I guess you could say that was motivation for me to work harder at my hockey career."
And that ... well it would be incentive enough to take the mule by the horns -- excuse the poetic license -- and work harder and harder at your trade.
Yzerman is the one who first began calling Franzen "Mule" when he appeared at his first training camp. You know, big, slow-moving, stubborn.
"To be honest," Franzen says today, "I didn't know what he meant. But who's going to question Steve Yzerman, huh?"
The big and stubborn part of that nickname make sense because of the stubbornness he has in front of and around the net, where a lot of players refuse to tread.
But Franzen looked around the Wings’ locker room as a rookie in 2004 and saw the skills of guys like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Heck ... everyone.
"That's when I decided to use my size and be more physical," he remembered.
He also worked on his footwork, because coach Mike Babcock kept putting him out there with players who had much more speed.
"Now I realize how smart he is," Babcock said. "Look at how much he's worked at his game since he came here in his first training camp in 2004. He's watched and learned. He's gotten quicker by watching our skill guys and he's gained a physical edge by watching a guy like Tomas Holmstrom.
"I'll tell you one thing: You don't find many players 6-3, 200-plus pounds who can do the things he can offensively and defensively."
While Franzen says he never expects the kind of production he's already achieved, we've seen this stubborn-as-a-mule performance since the beginning of March. The Wings hope there's more to come.