DALLAS - Dominant in the regular season, superb again in the post-season, the Detroit Red Wings are headed back to the Stanley Cup finals.
With gusto, too.
Just when the Red Wings lost consecutive games and were starting to look vulnerable, they bounced back strong in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, getting first-period goals from Kris Draper, Pavel Datsyuk and Dallas Drake on their way to knocking out the Dallas Stars 4-1 on Monday night.
Now Detroit goes from worrying about becoming the third team to blow a 3-0 series lead to trying to win its fourth championship in 11 seasons. The Red Wings will face the Pittsburgh Penguins. The series opens Saturday at Joe Louis Arena, with the schedule following a Saturday-Monday-Wednesday pattern.
"We responded tonight, something everyone in this dressing room should proud of," Draper said. "We're back in the Stanley Cup and it sounds great for us."
Detroit will be the home team because it had more regular-season points - most in the league, in fact. The Red Wings are the first recipient of the Presidents' Trophy to play for the Cup since they did so in 2002. That also was the last time they were in the finals. This will be their 23rd appearance.
As good as Detroit was the first 82 games, the Red Wings were even better for much of the last six weeks. They went nearly a month between losses, winning a franchise-record nine straight playoff games. It was the longest run by any team in 15 years and it put them a win away from eliminating the fifth-seeded Stars.
Dallas won Games 4 and 5 by limiting Detroit to a goal each game. The Red Wings exceeded that output in the first period Monday, with all three goals coming on uncontested shots right in front of the net. Henrik Zetterberg added a short-handed goal early in the second period and the series was all but over then.
"I thought it was a combination of us hoping to win and Detroit pushing the issue to win," Dallas coach Dave Tippett said. "I think they had a real hard focus around our net."
Drake and Zetterberg each had a goal and an assist. It was Zetterberg's 11th goal of the playoffs and Drake's first. Drake, a 16-year veteran, is headed to his first finals.
"It's a huge thrill for me," said Drake, who joked that he sat closer to Zetterberg on the bench and the scoring touch rubbed off. "It's gratifying to contribute when you can."
Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood didn't have to do much the first two periods, then got busy in the third. He passed all but one test, getting beat by Stephane Robidas during a power play.
Osgood improved to 10-2 this post-season. It was his 100th career playoff game and his 55th victory - his 48th for Detroit, passing Hall of Famer Terry Sawchuk for the franchise record.
"That was something that I wanted, one of my goals among others," Osgood said. "It was a special night."
Detroit's walloping knockout punch shouldn't have been a surprise. The Red Wings beat Nashville 3-0 to end the opening round, then crushed Colorado 8-2 to end the second round.
While the end was ugly, the Stars got a standing, towel-twirling ovation from fans at game's end in recognition of their best post-season since 2000, when they were defending Cup champions and made it back to the conference finals. Dallas dethroned reigning champion Anaheim, then ousted San Jose in the second round, finishing it off with a four-overtime thriller.
"We came a long way this year, but this wasn't our ultimate goal," said captain Brenden Morrow, who was doubled over on the ice at game's end. "We did make some progress. We put a lot of work into this and want to do it again. This will make us hungrier."
Maybe the four-OT marathon sapped them at the start of this series. And maybe their two-game rally sapped them for Game 6.
Dallas didn't even have a shot when the Red Wings got their first goal and they wasted their first six power plays. On one of them, they had a chance for a 5-on-3 advantage until Brad Winchester got called for boarding seconds after officials signalled for a delayed penalty.
Draper scored just 3:45 in, swatting at a rebound and seeing the puck squirt under Stars goalie Marty Turco. It didn't seem like he got his stick on the puck, prompting a video review. What they didn't see is that it went in off his face. That's why he was in the dressing room getting treated for a fat lip when his goal became official, not because of a post-goal cross-check by Dallas' Matt Niskanen that wasn't called.
"It went off my chin, it went in, who cares?" Draper said, blood still caked in his beard.
Datsyuk made it 2-0 on a power play about eight minutes later, flicking the puck over a sprawled out Turco after a defenceman lost sight of it. Later in the period, Drake planted himself a few inches from Turco and banged in his own rebound. It grew to 4-0 only 3:11 into the second period when Zetterberg stole a pass at his blue line and charged right at Turco, faking to one side and beating him on the other.
"It really hurts to think of what we could have done," Turco said. "It's the ultimate disappointment of letting the guys down. It comes with the territory. You handle it and deal with it."
Robidas scored 2:33 into the third period. Dallas showed some spunk after that, hitting hard and generating more scoring chances, but it was too little, too late.
Notes: The Red Wings and Penguins did not meet this season. They did the two previous years and Detroit won both. ... This will be the first Detroit-Pittsburgh finals. ... It also will be the first all-American finals since 2003, when New Jersey faced Anaheim. ... The team that scored first won every game this series.