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Red Wings, Blackhawks learned from epic series

by Brian Hedger

DETROIT -- It wasn't a Stanley Cup Final, but last season's Western Conference Semifinals series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings was nearly as memorable.

It was also educational for both teams, who will meet for the first of two scheduled games against each other this season Wednesday night at Joe Louis Arena (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2). Detroit's injury situation means the Red Wings won't look much like they did in that classic Stanley Cup Playoff series, but 12 of their healthy players and all of their coaches still have some painful memories left behind.

"We played really well [in that series]," Detroit defenseman Brendan Smith said after his team's morning skate. "I thought we could have wrapped it up, but they’re a great team and obviously they won. There’s a reason why they were able to beat us, because they were the best. We want to come out and prove something, just maybe get redemption. For sure, we want to come out and play our best."

Detroit learned losing a 3-1 series lead, especially to a longtime rival, stings the heart for a long time. Chicago learned winning a series like that, at home in overtime of Game 7, does wonders for a team's confidence.

Brent Seabrook's goal in OT, which finally ended it, sparked a surge of momentum that helped catapult the Blackhawks to their second Stanley Cup championship in four seasons.

"That was the turning point," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "We hadn’t really faced any kind of adversity up until that point in the season. I wouldn’t say there was any overconfidence in this locker room, that’s not our style, but we didn’t quite know what to expect playing a team with playoff experience like Detroit. They took control of that series pretty quick on us. They were pushing us over the edge. We had to kind of find our way back."

Once they did, the Blackhawks used the surge to beat the Los Angeles Kings in the conference finals before dispatching the Boston Bruins in six games to hoist the Cup, overcoming a 2-1 series deficit and 2-1 Bruins lead late in the sixth game.

"That was the turning point for this team," Toews said of the Red Wings series. "It was huge for us to overcome it. We kind of felt whatever situation we got into from that point on, we could fight our way out of it. We just knew not to take one minute off or one shift [off] after that."

The Red Wings also learned a few things, with the most important being one all NHL teams fear in the postseason.

"I guess just being up 3-1 in a series, it obviously doesn't mean anything," Detroit forward Justin Abdelkader said. "You know, [it's a] cliche ... but you've got to take it one game at a time."

They actually did do that, but so did the Blackhawks. Chicago used the same mantra to pick up wins in Game 5 at United Center, Game 6 at Joe Louis Arena and Game 7 back in Chicago.

"We just couldn't close them out in Game 5 in Chicago," Abdelkader said. "I thought we played good and had chances. We just couldn't come out with a win. And then Game 6 was really a tough one, when we had a lead going into the third period and gave up a goal right away. I thought we had control of that game, for the most part. And then Game 7 just came down to a bounce in overtime. That's how the game is and no lead is safe."

No series like that one goes forgotten, either, not by the winners and especially not by the losers.

"It took a while [to get past it], especially after you see them win," Abdelkader said. "That made it even that much harder. But you've got to move on and learn from situations like that. I think it was a good experience for us, but at the same time, to see them go on and win, it was pretty tough."

Smith was asked a similar question, which he couldn't decide how to answer. Did Chicago's championship make dropping that semifinals series easier or harder?

"That’s a tough question, actually," Smith said. "Both. I mean, it makes it easier in the sense that we were that close. If we could have maybe finished it off, because we had a bunch of chances, we could be in that same spot. That’s a tough one."

The winners have their own lasting memories, along with thoughts on what that comeback truly meant. What did they learn about themselves?

"Just resilience, I think," Seabrook said. "It was big for us. We had a pretty good season, so it was our first little bit of adversity and I thought we came out well and answered the bell."

"That was the turning point for this team. It was huge for us to overcome it. We kind of felt whatever situation we got into from that point on, we could fight our way out of it. We just knew not to take one minute off or one shift [off] after that."
-- Jonathan Toews on Chicago's postseason comeback against Detroit

Looking back on it, Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford realized something else about that series. Chicago pulled off a trick on the Red Wings that Detroit had made famous, overcoming improbable odds by simply never losing faith in themselves.

"We still had that confidence, where we thought if we kept playing the same way we were, things were going to turn around for us," Crawford said. "Detroit kind of plays like that, especially when I first came into the League. We would be up on them and they would still find a way to come back and win the game, almost like nothing bothers them. That's sort of the attitude you have to have."

It's the attitude the Blackhawks found within themselves in that series and maintain now. They're among the NHL's elite yet again, looking an awful lot like the Red Wings teams of old.

Detroit, meanwhile, finds itself in another intense fight for a playoff spot, fighting the injury bug and hoping to find a path back to being elite.

"I don’t think we’re holding up our end of the bargain," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said of the rivalry against Chicago. "Rivalry is when two teams really get after one another. I thought we did last year in the playoffs. We haven’t been a good enough team this year to consider this a rivalry-type game, but in the past we know what that is and we’ve had a good run with them."

He offered a final thought on that subject, and it was educational in itself.

"We used to be where they are," Babcock said, "and know they are where we were."

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