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Lidstrom, Blake still going strong at age 40

by Rick Sadowski
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- They are members of an exclusive club: 40-year-old defensemen and team captains whose ability to play at an elite level for so long eventually will land them in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

For now, the Detroit Red Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom and San Jose Sharks' Rob Blake are more interested in helping their teams advance to the Western Conference Finals, though they sounded like members of a mutual admiration society Thursday morning at HP Pavilion.

"He's probably the best defenseman I've ever seen," Blake told "He's been dynamic for them. He doesn't slow down and he plays big minutes and in all situations. He's been a key for that franchise since Day One when he got there."

Lidstrom, who turned 40 on Wednesday, is coming off yet another strong season in which he was the Red Wings' third-leading scorer with 49 points (9 goals, 40 assists) in 82 games. He averaged close to 25 1/2 minutes of ice time and had a plus-22 rating.

The smooth-skating Swede, a 6-foot-1, 190-pounder, followed with a terrific performance in Detroit's seven-game series with Phoenix in the opening round of the playoffs. He scored three times, all on power plays, and added three assists.

"I think what Nick does is, he settles things down for their hockey club," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan, who was a Detroit assistant for three years. "Very rarely does he get beat. You can't continually try and take him on one-on-one. He's too skilled for that."

Blake, who celebrated his 40th birthday last December, isn't quite the offensive force he was when he was younger, but the 6-foot-4, 227-pounder did score 7 goals and add 23 assists in 70 games. He averaged a little more than 21 minutes per game and was plus-14.

Blake, who broke into the NHL with Los Angeles at the end of the 1989-90 season and won the Norris Trophy with the Kings in 1997-98, had a power-play goal and 4 assists in six first-round games against Colorado. He still owns a potent hip check and the ability to poke pucks away with his long reach.

When away from the ice, Lidstrom and Blake lead more by example than by anything they have to say, McLellan said.

"I don't know that they're cheerleaders by any means," he said. "They're not jumping up and down and yelling and screaming. When they speak, everything seems to get quiet. Everybody stops and people listen."

It helps, of course, that both are "high, high-end players," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "Nick is a different type of player than Blake, such a smooth skater and so effortless that he doesn't have to work as hard to get around the rink. Blake is a more physical player, and so that can be more wear and tear on your body. But they've both had great careers and I'm assuming they're going to continue to play for a while yet."

Lidstrom, who began his NHL career with Detroit in 1991-92, hardly thought he'd last this long in North America after leaving his native Sweden.

"I still enjoy playing," he said. "When I first came over from Sweden, I signed a three-year deal and I thought I'd play that out and go back to Europe to play again. So I never expected to be over here playing for that length of period."

Blake was just beginning to establish himself as a potential star when Lidstrom landed in Detroit.

"I know when I first came into the League, Blakie was an up-and-coming defenseman, and one of the guys that I kind of looked at from a distance," Lidstrom said. "He's been a very good guy in this league. Blakie's had a great career."

Blake went to the Stanley Cup Final with the Kings in 1993 and was a member of Colorado's 2001 championship team. Lidstrom has hoisted the silver trophy four times and went to the Finals last spring. He's also won the Norris Trophy six times in an eight-year span.
"He's probably the best defenseman I've ever seen.  He's been dynamic for them. He doesn't slow down and he plays big minutes and in all situations. He's been a key for that franchise since Day One when he got there." -- Rob Blake on Nicklas Lidstrom

Lidstrom became the first European-born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy when he accomplished the feat in 2002, and he's the only European-born captain to win a Stanley Cup.

Lidstrom ranks fourth in Red Wings history for regular-season games (1,412) and points (1,046), with 237 goals and 809 assists. He's totaled 49 goals and 122 assists in 242 playoff games.

"It's absolutely amazing how many games he's been able to play," Blake said. "It is truly because he is that much better than anyone else. He works extremely hard at different aspects of the game. You have to be fortunate with injuries to play this long, but it's also the way you take care of yourself."

Blake has 240 goals and 573 assists in 1,270 regular-season games, with 26 goals and 47 assists in 137 playoff contests.

Like Lidstrom, Blake still enjoys playing and is eager to get another crack at the Stanley Cup. Blake's contract expires on July 1, but he won't make a decision about his future until the summer.

"I'm looking forward to the second round here and seeing what we can do," he said. "At this stage of my career, I go year by year."

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