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Red Wings clicking after season of figuring identity

by Corey Masisak

DETROIT -- The Detroit Red Wings have been the gold standard in the NHL for more than a decade, something not lost on the rival Chicago Blackhawks.

This current collection of Blackhawks has been building toward trying to meet that standard, winning the Stanley Cup in 2010 and knowing that knocking off the Red Wings for the first time in the playoffs as a group and reaching the Western Conference Finals for the third time in five seasons would be a major step forward.

When the focus is narrowed to just the 2012-13 season, though, the roles for these two franchises are reversed. The Blackhawks started the season on an incredible run and have been the pacesetter for the entire campaign, capturing the Presidents' Trophy and cementing their place as the team to beat in the Western Conference by dispatching the Minnesota Wild in five first-round games despite members of the club admitting it wasn't their best work.

This has been a different season for the Red Wings. It began with decreased expectations from people outside the dressing room, and a slow start seemed to confirm what pundits thought a Detroit team without Nicklas Lidstrom would look like.

That said, the Red Wings have been steadily improving, and that process has been expedited in the past month. After the Red Wings smoked the top-seeded Blackhawks 4-1 at United Center on Saturday to even this Western Conference Semifinals series at one game apiece, Detroit coach Mike Babcock offered something pretty telling: He said the Blackhawks started the year as a good team and they're a good team now, while his Red Wings are a good team now but were not one earlier in the season.

"I don't know what Chicago started and Anaheim started -- I think it was like 20-2 or something ridiculous," Babcock said Sunday at Joe Louis Arena. "A good month for us was one over [.500]. We tried to do that each month and keep hanging in there to give us a chance to get better. Our guys have gotten better. You have to give them credit.

"We've had great growth from within -- I think the most since I've been in the National Hockey League, for sure. That might just be because we've got a different type of team. We've got a whole bunch of kids, so there is a chance for growth."

The Red Wings are still built around star players -- captain Henrik Zetterberg and center Pavel Datsyuk chief among them -- but "the kids" have earned plenty of attention during the Stanley Cup Playoffs because of their rapid development. Babcock said after Game 7 of the first round, when the Red Wings upset second-seeded Anaheim, that his club wouldn't have been good enough to beat the Ducks in a series earlier in the year.

By splitting the first two games in Chicago, Detroit stole home-ice advantage in the series and Game 3 is Monday night at Joe Louis Arena (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS). The question to be answered in the coming days is, have the Red Wings improved enough to also knock off their rivals and a Stanley Cup favorite?

"I do think every time we've played them other than the blowout here in our building [a 7-1 loss on March 31], it has been tight matchups," Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "Other than just playing them, of course our game has been very much up and down this year, but it does feel like we're moving on the right track."

Some of "the kids" were not with the Red Wings at the start of the season, and their ability to lock down a permanent place in the lineup has led in part to the improvement. Not having Darren Helm, who was expected to be the No. 3 center, was a big blow to the team's depth, but Joakim Andersson has settled into that role and been a revelation in the postseason.

One of the guys skating next to him, Gustav Nyquist, also was playing for Grand Rapids in the American Hockey League in January, but he and a third rookie, Damien Brunner, have joined Andersson to form the team's third line. Brunner is tied for the team lead in goals with four and tied for second with seven points.

Brunner and Nyquist each have an overtime goal in the postseason as well.

Damien Brunner
Center - DET
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 7
SOG: 18 | +/-: -1
"That Andersson line has been key for us," Babcock said. "We got worked in the 3-hole for the first two months and we couldn't handle it."

Goalie Jimmy Howard said, "That third line has been really good for us, definitely taking some pressure off our top two lines. That's what you need in the playoffs. … [Andersson] is the worker. [Nyquist] has the skill. And Brunner is a natural goal scorer."

Kronwall had to adjust to a new role with Lidstrom gone. He has accepted the responsibility of being the No. 1 defenseman and has proven apt at logging a ton of minutes and being an impact player at both ends of the ice.

Detroit's biggest problem early in the season, according to Howard, was at the defensive end of the ice and "the little details." Part of that was trying to figure out roles for everyone behind Kronwall.

Jonathan Ericsson has become Kronwall's go-to partner, and rookies have supplanted veterans for spots in the top six. Brendan Smith was always expected to be a key player this season, but Jakub Kindl and April addition Danny DeKeyser also became mainstays.

When DeKeyser injured his hand, Babcock turned to rookie Brian Lashoff first before brining veteran Carlo Colaiacovo in for the past three games.

"The growth of Smith and Kindl has been huge for us," Babcock said. "Ericsson has gotten much better. We seem to have people rounded into playing in spots that suit them better.

"I talked about when DeKeyser came, he helped us immensely. Whenever we got confidence or got playing better, we were able to maintain it when he left to a certain level -- we still don't move the puck the same, but I just think we're a better team. We weren't a good team at the start."

Another big move for the Red Wings was the rise of forward Justin Abdelkader. He was one of the kids when Detroit made back-to-back trips to the Cup Final in 2008 and '09, but Abdelkader had seemed to settle in as a bottom-six forward.

That changed when Babcock tried him on a line with Datsyuk, and he's now a critical element of the team's top trio.

"He's been a dominant physical guy for us and made us a better team," Babcock said. "It took us a long time to figure out where everybody fit best. There were lots of changes, new guys that we brought in that didn't fit the way we thought they were, or were better than we thought they were. We've just kind of watched it happen."

There was a stretch in late March, where Detroit won five of six, including two victories at Anaheim and one at Vancouver, that represented the first spark of what the Red Wings could become. It was followed by a run of eight losses in 11 games (3-5-3) and put the franchise's streak of consecutive playoff appearances in jeopardy.

"Going down the stretch, when we really had to win to make the playoffs in the first case -- that is when I really felt like the team was getting together and pulling together and all working the same direction. I think that's something we've learned over the latter part of the season -- how we have to play to have success."
-- Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall

Instead, the Red Wings won four straight to finish the season and clinch a 22nd consecutive trip to the postseason. Then they knocked off the Ducks. Then they blitzed the mighty Blackhawks in their building.

It has been a different kind of season in Detroit. The Red Wings have been the chasers, but they've narrowed the gap.

"Going down the stretch, when we really had to win to make the playoffs in the first case -- that is when I really felt like the team was getting together and pulling together and all working the same direction," Kronwall said. "I think that's something we've learned over the latter part of the season -- how we have to play to have success. I think that's proven in the playoffs, too. It is pretty easy to see what we're doing right when we win and what we're not doing right when we don't."

Babcock used an analogy from his early days in coaching.

"I've said it before, but when I used to coach junior hockey I'd always say that a playoff game development-wise to a regular-season game is like two-to-one," he said. "In the playoffs, the players get better and better. I think with our kids, that is what's happening right now. We're playing a good team right now in Chicago. They know how to play, so it pushes you.

"I thought our guys played real well [Saturday]. … For the first while we weren't good enough to play that way. I agree, you start believing that it is the blue print after you have some success. In order to have some success, you have to be good enough to do it. We've worked on it since Day One. We were a work in progress, because we didn't know what we were going to be early."


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