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Red Wings' Babcock focused solely on the present

by Brian Hedger

DETROIT -- It was one of the most enduring images from this year's installment of HBO's "24/7: Road to the Winter Classic," which previewed the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic played between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Jan. 1.

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock stood in front of a white dry-erase board in the locker room putting a patchwork of unfamiliar numbers into his lineup. He added forward Gustav Nyquist's No. 14 to the top of an injury list eight players long that was written vertically down the right side.

"These people don't matter," Babcock said, circling his hand around the injury list.

Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock doesn't have time to focus on anything other than who is available for that night's game. He expects his players, whether they're NHL veterans or AHL call-ups, to play the right way and win. (Photo: Dave Reginek/NHLI)

Circling his hand around the lineup, he continued: "These people matter."

That lengthy injury list gave a glimpse into how the Red Wings have managed to keep their head above water this season with many sidelined players.

"What are we going to do about these guys?" Babcock said. "It doesn't matter. Out of sight, out of mind, that kind of thing. When you're healthy you'll tell us and obviously will play. In the meantime we've got to find a way to do it. That's just the process of injuries in the League, and so what? Do it."

That scene was shot in late December. It's April now and the Red Wings still are dealing with injuries. They're playing without their top two forwards, captain Henrik Zetterberg and center Pavel Datsyuk, and a handful of others are sidelined with them.

Despite that grim scenario, they're heading into a big game against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, RDS, TSN2) in control of their own destiny for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Seeking to make their 23rd straight appearance in the postseason, the Red Wings enter play holding the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

"[Babcock] has done a great job," said Detroit forward Justin Abdelkader, who returned from a leg laceration Sunday. "He expects to win each night, no matter who's in the lineup. It doesn't matter … whoever's in the lineup. He expects us to go out, compete hard and give ourselves a chance to win."

There are a number of reasons Detroit hasn't fallen out of playoff contention, among them the rapid maturation of a number of young players. There's a strong staff assisting Babcock, but ultimately he's the one standing in front of that white board every game with a marker in his hand.

Considering the circumstances, this might be Babcock's most impressive coaching job yet. That's a strong statement for someone who has won championships at nearly every level, including the 2008 Stanley Cup with the Red Wings and Olympic gold medals with Canada in 2010 and 2014.

Babcock just surpassed legendary coach Scotty Bowman for the second-most wins in Red Wings history (411) and is two away from tying Jack Adams for the top spot. Odds strongly favor him passing Adams this season and possibly winning the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL's best coach.

"I'm one of those guys that believes that he's certainly deserving of being mentioned in the Jack Adams," said Boston coach Claude Julien, who was one of Babcock's assistants at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. "We've seen [Babcock] here for many years with good teams, and we all know that when you have good teams sometimes you don't get the recognition you should. Those good teams and those good players are just as hard to handle as the other scenarios, but he's been overlooked because of that. Now he's had a team where he's had tons of challenges and he's got them in a playoff spot. To me, that's a heck of a job from a coach."

There have been times this season when the Red Wings were written off, but Babcock wasn't fazed. He merely did what he always does, even with a healthy team. He narrowed the focus to each day and demanded his players do the same.

"I've enjoyed our group," Babcock said after the morning skate Wednesday. "Our group works hard, our group competes hard, our group tries to be good and they're disappointed when they're not. To me, that gives you a chance. All you're trying to do each and every year is maximize the group you're given and that's what we're trying to do this year. I don't spend a whole ton of time thinking about [the challenges]. I spend a ton of time thinking about the game we're playing. And we're playing Boston [on Wednesday] and we're excited to have the opportunity."

That singular focus has allowed his healthy players to overcome their inexperience. For Babcock, the players called into duty aren't fill-ins. They're Red Wings and he expects them to play as such.

"He's a great coach," Abdelkader said. "He's really demanding and expects a lot of his players. He expects you to come in here and be an everyday player. Maybe we're not going to have the most skilled lineup each and every night with all these injuries, but if we can go out and outwork the other team and compete at a really high level and give ourselves a chance to win, that's all you can really ask for."

The Red Wings have used 37 players this season and have 15 on the roster who have spent time with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League. They have eight players who helped Grand Rapids win the Calder Cup last season. Each player that arrives from Grand Rapids has the same expectations placed upon them by the franchise and the coach.

"Oh yeah, they know," defenseman Brendan Smith said of his rookie teammates. "You know that before you even get the chance to play here. Once you're with the group it's embedded even more. When I was in Grand Rapids and when these guys were in Grand Rapids, we all knew that it's a winning team [in Detroit] no matter how you want to look at it. We're going to make the playoffs. That's just how it works ... no ifs, ands or buts."

Babcock won't accept anything less and won't allow his players to ponder the possibility. It's how he's wired.

"I don't know if I need reinvigorating," he said. "That's not my personality. I like winning. I'm not spending a whole bunch of time talking about the past or the future. I like living today and we're going to do that here [Wednesday]. We've got a big game and we're going to get ready."

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