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Mulish Wings flirt with perfection in Round 2

by Mike G. Morreale

Johan Franzen broke Gordie Howe's record of eight goals in seven games, by scoring nine goals in four games.
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Just when it appeared chinks were appearing in the armor of top-seeded Detroit, the Mule-driven Red Wings rode to a four-game sweep of Colorado in the Western Conference semifinals to a seventh Western Conference Final appearance in 13 seasons.

After losing two straight games in the first round against Nashville, some questioned Detroit’s playoff mettle. Well, Red Wings forward Johan Franzen, better known now as the ‘Mule’ these days, has put those fears to rest almost singlehandedly.

In the second round, the Red Wings left little doubt of their dominance against their injury-riddled nemesis, completing an 8-0 finish against the sixth-seeded Avs this season with a four-game sweep.

Unlike the previous five postseason series meetings between the teams, this series was never really in doubt following a 5-1 Game 2 victory in Detroit. In that game, Franzen registered the first hat trick of his career.

``He’s a big man with a lot of skill and good hands,’’ said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. ``When you can’t get the puck off the guy and he gets in tight, he’s tough for the goalie to handle.’’

Franzen, who leads the team with 11 goals this postseason, has scored 26 times in his last 25 games, a streak that dates back to March 2. He has done much of that damage playing with linemates Valtteri Filppula (two goals, three assists in 10 playoff games) and Mikael Samuelsson (two goals, five assists).

Now, the Wings look forward to avenging a six-game loss to Anaheim , the eventual Cup champion, in last year’s Western Conference Finals. This season, Anaheim was eliminated by the Dallas Stars – Detroit’s next opponent --  in the opening round.

``It’s great to see (Franzen) take the puck to the net,’’ Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom told ``He really tries to hang on to it. He’s scoring goals where he’s just being patient and going to the front of the net. We wanted to try and hang on to the puck down low and make (Colorado’s) whole five-man unit play defense.’’

Franzen’s 11 goals have already established a Wings record for a playoff year. Peter Klima (10 goals in 1988), Sergei Fedorov (10 goals in 22 games, 1998) and Brett Hull (10 goals in 23 games, 2002) were the previous record-holders. His nine goals against Colorado also a club record for a series, breaking Gordie Howe’s eight goals in seven games in 1949.

``Every time you get mentioned with (Gordie Howe), it’s a great honor,’’ Franzen said. ``I don’t know what to say. I feel real lucky.’’

In the Western Conference semis, the Red Wings outscored the Avalanche, 21-9, including an 8-2 series-clinching victory at Pepsi Center in Denver. In that game, Franzen notched his second hat trick of the series.

The Avalanche were without forwards Peter Forsberg (groin), Ryan Smyth (foot), Paul Stastny (knee) and Wojtek Wolski (upper body), four of their leading scorers, in the final game of the series.

In addition to Franzen, Samuelsson and Henrik Zetterberg each hit twice, Pavel Datsyuk had three assists and Lidstrom, Filppula and Jiri Hudler each chipped in two assists during the Game 4 barrage. Tomas Holmstrom had the other goal.

The Wings also chased Avalanche goalie and opening-round hero, Jose Theodore, for the third time in four games.

``At this point last year, we were playing pretty good, but it’s hard,’’ Babcock said. ``But Mule  is a better player, (Dan) Cleary is a better player, (Filppula) is a better player, (Niklas) Kronwall is a better player. We may be better. We’ll find out.’’

Indeed, it’ll be difficult for any opponent to slow down these Wings. Babcock, whose career playoff record in three seasons with Detroit stands at 26-6, has four productive offensive lines, six playoff-caliber defensemen and a pair of All-Star goalies. That’s scary-good.

The Red Wings also head into the Western Conference Final as healthy as they have been all season. Dan Cleary, Kris Draper and Dallas Drake have worked well together, as have Darren Helm, Darren McCarty and Hudler. In addition to Franzen’s line, the other top unit consists of Holmstrom (21 hits), Zetterberg (10 takeaways) and Datsyuk (12 takeaways), who have combined for 32 points (14 goals) in 10 playoff games.

Defensively, Lidstrom and the smooth-skating Brian Rafalski, a combined plus-14 in the playoffs, have been flawless. Hard-hitting Brad Stuart (21 hits, plus-2) is proving to be a splendid trade-deadline acquisition alongside Kronwall and Brett Lebda is working hard with either veteran Chris Chelios (lower-body injury) or third-season performer Andreas Lilja. Chelios, who was scratched from Game 4 against Colorado just after warmups, should be ready to go in the conference final.

Since replacing Dominik Hasek between the pipes in Game 4 against Nashville in the opening round, Chris Osgood is 6-0 with a sterling 1.52 goals-against average, .937 save percentage and one shutout.

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