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Messier: Use the 'D' word in describing Wings

by John Kreiser
PITTSBURGH -- The dynasty is one of the NHL's most exclusive groups, reserved for only the greatest teams in hockey history.

Mark Messier's Edmonton Oilers, who won five Stanley Cups in a seven-year period from 1984-90, are a member, as are teams like the New York Islanders of the early 1980s, the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1950s and late '70s, and the Toronto Maple Leafs of the late 1940s and early '60s.

Circumstances in sport change, and we may never see a team dominate the NHL the way these clubs did. But Messier feels the dynasty door could be about to swing open for a new member: the Detroit Red Wings, who are two wins away from their fifth Cup in 12 years, including what would be back-to-back titles if they can close out the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2009 Final.

"I don't think five Cups is negotiable nowadays, because you only have a certain window of opportunity now. I don’t know what the criteria is for the word 'dynasty,' but you'd certainly have to say they'd be close to being called a dynasty now," Messier said of the Wings, who won Cups in 1997, '98 and 2002 before knocking off Pittsburgh in last year's Final and lead 2-1 this year going into Game 4 Thursday night at Mellon Arena. "They've had too much success for too long not to be called a dynasty in the making. If they go on to win this year, it wouldn't be a stretch to call them a dynasty.

Messier is most impressed by the way the Wings' management has been able to deal with the changes in the way the game is run. Detroit won its first three championships in the pre-salary cap era, but has remained among the NHL's elite while working under the new financial rules.

"If you date back to when they won the first Cup in '97, they've got a 10-year run going," he said of the Wings, who swept Philadelphia that year for the franchise's first championship since 1955. "It's pretty impressive, especially with the challenges with the salary cap and not being able to draft high. Getting players to come in and play and replenish year after year -- it's an amazing job.

"It's hard to keep your nucleus together due to the salary cap. Add on the parity of the League -- and you only have so much money to spend -- you have to make decisions on players you have to keep to remain competitive." Messier cited the Ottawa Senators, who built a strong team earlier in the decade but never won a Cup as a team whose championship opportunity came and went, and noted "that's going to be the norm more often than not. That's why Detroit is such a tremendous story from an organizational standpoint."

The Wings are annually among the NHL's highest-scoring teams, but they don't come close to putting up the kind of offensive numbers that Messier and his teammates did during one of the highest-scoring eras in League history. How would Messier and those Oilers try to put the clamps these Wings, who rely on skating, speed and puck possession?

"Trying to slow them down wouldn't have been our problem, because we obviously skated so well," he said. "It would have been a great matchup against that team."

More important than offense and skating, he feels, is the ability to keep the puck out of the net. It's a lesson he concedes didn't come without some pain -- specifically, being swept by the Islanders in 1983.

"What we learned when we played the Islanders was that we had to play a much better team game -- defensively, from a team concept point," he said. "That's where we really turned the corner as a team; we learned to play defense. We learned how to keep the puck out of our net. In playoff hockey, goals don't come easy. If you're allowing four or five goals in the playoffs, your chances of winning are slim.

"We learned to play defensively, even though we were a high-powered offense, we saw we had to sacrifice some offense to shut the door defensively."

Messier likened the lessons his teams learned from those Islanders to what the Penguins are going through now. Pittsburgh sometimes looked awestruck during last year's six-game loss to the Wings in the Final; they've looked much more mature this year, even though they're down 2-1 in games.

"I definitely think they're ready mentally this year," he said. "They're more prepared physically. I think (Evgeni) Malkin alone is stronger this year, ready for the grind of the long season. They lost (Marian) Hossa, which hurt, but here they are again.
"They've won before, they know how to win -- and instead of getting older and a little banged up, they're getting younger and stronger while remaining at the top. They are up against a team that's nowhere near ready to relinquish the title."
-- Mark Messier on the Red Wings
"The problem they have is that they're playing against a team that's an amazing organization. They've won before, they know how to win -- and instead of getting older and a little banged up, they're getting younger and stronger while remaining at the top. They are up against a team that's nowhere near ready to relinquish the title."

But cheer up, Pittsburgh fans. Whether it's this year or somewhere down the road, Messier sees a Cup in your future.

"I believe that winning a championship for any player or any team really kind of validates you as a step above the rest. I know Pittsburgh is trying to do that, and I have no doubt they will, whether it's this year or whenever," he said. "There's no question with the balance they have on their team, they are going to win a Stanley Cup."

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