Since winning its 10th Stanley Cup in franchise history in 2002, the Detroit Red Wings
have methodically steamrolled the competition in the regular season only to be forced back to the drawing board following its elimination from the postseason tournament.
It’s no wonder fans in “Hockeytown” are maintaining a low profile these days as their team enters the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Red Wings, who have earned either the first or second seed in the Western Conference since winning it all six years ago, have won their fifth Presidents’ Trophy to earn home-ice advantage for the duration of its stay in the playoffs this season, as well. Not only has Detroit scored the third -most goals of any team in the League (257), but the Red Wings have given up the fewest (184) behind a defense that prides itself on stifling the opposition.
Unlike previous seasons, when the Red Wings were ousted from the playoffs by seventh-seeded Anaheim in 2003, sixth-seeded Calgary in 2004, eighth-seeded Edmonton in 2006 and second-seeded Anaheim last year, the club has persevered down the stretch despite multiple injuries to key players.
Coach Mike Babcock, who this season became the first in NHL history to win at least 50 games in his first three seasons with a team, prefers not to dwell on the negative.
“The bottom line is, complaining about injuries isn’t going to help you win games,’’ Babcock said. “I was real impressed with the group of young defensemen we brought in here and how hard they played. It’s one of those things that you can talk about after you get through (the injuries). You put the uniform on and are expected to compete at a high level; we have a real proud group. The thing I was most impressed with was that there was no finger pointing. You have to find a way in this League to win every night. No one cares where you played the night before or who’s injured. Everybody in the League is injured at some time. You just have to find a way to get points.’’
Defensively, the Red Wings have dealt with a rash of injuries over the course of the season, including those to Nicklas Lidstrom (knee), Niklas Kronwall (clavicle), Brian Rafalski (groin), Chris Chelios (leg), and, most recently, Brad Stuart (broken finger). Kronwall, whose regular partner was Stuart, now is playing opposite Chelios, who has shown no sign of slowing down at the age of 46. Babcock also has utilized 26-year-old workhorse Brett Lebda and 23-year-old Derek Meech along the blue line.
Lidstrom, one of the more gifted and talented defenseman in the League, obviously heads the charge for the Wings. Rafalski, second only to Lidstrom among defenseman in team scoring, has proven to be an exceptional free-agent pickup.
Expect a healthy Dominik Hasek (2.14 goals-against average, .902 save percentage) to get the nod between the pipes even though Chris Osgood (2.09 GAA, .914 save percentage) sports the better numbers this season. Detroit General Manager Ken Holland believes Hasek, behind a defense that limited foes to 23.5 shots a game, still can be the force that helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2002.
“If you look back a year ago, Dom took us to the final four,’’ Holland said. “Why wouldn't you try it all over again? He gave us Stanley Cup goaltending last year.’’
One phase of Detroit’s game that is crystal clear is the offensive arsenal at Babcock’s disposal. Johan Franzen is proving to be as disruptive a force in the crease as Dan Cleary and Tomas Holmstrom. With injuries to Cleary (fractured jaw) and Holmstrom (groin) down the stretch, Babcock has used Franzen and Mikael Samuelsson as the wingmen for Henrik Zetterberg, who led the team in goals this season. Pavel Datsyuk, the team’s leading point-producer with 97, had centered a line with Jiri Hudler and Valtteri Filppula, but that likely will change once everyone is healthy.
Not to be forgotten are Detroit’s tireless penalty killers and checkers, including Kris Draper, one of the finer defensive forwards in the NHL. Don’t be surprised if right wing Darren McCarty, attempting a comeback after sitting home until early January, reunites with former linemates Kirk Maltby and Draper to from the hugely popular “Grind Line.” Draper and Maltby have played with Dallas Drake much of the season.