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NHL's Final Four teams faced adversity

by Mike G. Morreale

The Red Wings finished with 124 points in Mike Babcock’s first season behind the Detroit bench in 2005-06, but were eliminated by the Oilers in round one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Red Wings beat Avs
You kind of get the feeling Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock would give Dr. Phil McGraw a good run for his money if some unfortunate soul was in dire need of a little motivation.

Take, for instance, Babcock’s philosophy on dealing with adversity.

“I’m a big believer that adversity makes you better in life, never mind just sport,’’ he said. “All I need to do is look back on my first year in Detroit when we didn’t have any. We couldn’t lose even when we played bad enough to lose and then got in the first round of the playoffs, faced adversity, and didn’t respond. To me, when you’ve gone through it, you’ve had to respond; you’ve had to pull together.’’

The Red Wings finished with 124 points (58-16-8) to win the Presidents’ Trophy in Babcock’s first season behind the Detroit bench in 2005-06, but were eliminated by the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in six games.

“It’s so easy to point the finger at someone else and not take responsibility when adversity hits,’’ Babcock continued, “but when you’re in it and stick together as a team and believe in one another, you find a way to make it happen on a positive side that sets you up to handle it in the future. That’s why adversity is such a great teacher.’’

Is there any doubt Babcock should one day take up motivational speaking? Perhaps, but for now, he’s entrenched as coach of the Red Wings, grateful his charges are one of four teams still in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. And make no mistake, this group has experienced its share of adversity, losing 10 of 11 games in February before going 12-3-1 to end the regular season with the best record in the NHL, 54-21-7.

Now, the Wings are battling the Dallas Stars, another team that has taken adversity head on and passed the test, in the Western Conference Finals.

“Adversity usually brings out flaws,’’ Dallas coach Dave Tippett said. “If you have places where you have weakness in your group or the way you’re doing things, adversity sometimes brings those to light and they’re very fixable.’’

Tippett’s club went 4-8-2 to close out the season before beating the Anaheim Ducks in the opening round and the San Jose Sharks in the conference semifinals.
“The team I had in the minors (Houston Aeros) in ‘99 won the (Turner Cup) championship with very little adversity all the way through,’’ Tippett said. “There are other teams I’ve seen, though, that have struggled, but get into the playoffs, get on a run and away they go. Every team is different, but adversity certainly helps your group recognize any weaknesses you may have.’’

In the East, the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins have also undergone stressful moments, but have come through unscathed in reaching the conference final. It was only two seasons ago the Penguins finished as the worst team in hockey and the Flyers would equal that calamity just last season.

“I think last year was a difficult year on everybody, but once it was over, everyone was looking forward and not behind,’’ Flyers coach John Stevens said. “We brought in a lot of new players over the summer and at the end of last year. This group really needed time together to get to know each other and develop that bond that I call affection, but they needed to learn to trust each other.’’

On the day the Flyers dropped their 10th-straight game in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers on Feb. 23, they also lost leading scorer Mike Richards for three weeks with a left hamstring injury. At the time, Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren said: “There is no use waiving a white flag right now. Everybody is going to have to pick it up and deal with it.’’

Well, they did, going 12-4-4 to end the season and earn the sixth seed in the East. The team then knocked off third-seeded Washington in seven games in the opening round before eliminating top-seeded Montreal in five.

“Once we got beyond that losing streak, we got into a situation where we had to win games,’’ Stevens said. “We had some continuity in our lines, we got healthy and played our best hockey at the end of the year. I do think it’s a process that takes time, but these guys all know each other well. They have fun coming to the rink together and we’ve got great team spirit. But, again, that takes time to build.’’

In Pittsburgh, coach Michel Therrien’s club suffered various injuries to star players over the course of the season, including captain Sidney Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Each player missed considerable time due to ankle sprains.

"We brought in a lot of new players over the summer and at the end of last year. This group really needed time together to get to know each other and develop that bond that I call affection, but they needed to learn to trust each other.’’ - Flyers head coach John Stevens
“I remember at one point having six, even seven guys in our lineup from the minors,’’ Therrien recalled. “Losing your best players and your No. 1 goalie was tough. When we ended up losing Sid, I told the players that if we could get out of this, we were going to end up being better because we’re going to get a chance to have different players with different roles.’’

As it turned out, backup goalie Ty Conklin (18-8-5, 2.51 goals-against average, .923 save percentage) filled in admirably during Fleury’s absence and Evgeni Malkin (106 points) certainly did more than his share from an offensive standpoint.

“When we reached the playoffs,’’ Therrien continued, “I knew this experience would be a real positive thing for our young club and, right now, we’re playing our best hockey.’’

Perhaps the biggest component in dealing with adversity is a team’s chemistry. It’s an area of the game that Babcock is very passionate.

“Chemistry is huge, and I don’t buy into the talk that it’s formed by a group of guys going out for a beer together,’’ Babcock said. “Chemistry, in my mind, is developed through paying the price for one another and sacrificing to win. The reality is you have to want to go to war for each other and pick each other up. I believe the culture in our dressing room and within our organization is as good as any place in hockey. I believe the leadership and the ability for them to look after each other on and off the ice is something we’re really blessed with here and something (General Manager) Ken Holland works hard at. But it’s something that doesn’t happen overnight.’’

Contact Mike Morreale at

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