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Wings continue to perfect a winning plan

by Larry Wigge

The Red Wings' system of puck possession and disciplined defense is dominating opponents in the playoffs. Lidstrom highlight video
I'm walking out of the Detroit Red Wings' dressing room after Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals thinking how much some things change and others, like the puck possession game, the disciplined defense and the passion for sticking to their system is, well, what makes this Motor City team tick.

Success seems to follow the Wings, along with 100-point seasons, first-place finishes and playoff victories.

As I'm walking out of the dressing room long after Detroit beat Dallas 5-2 in Game 3, I hear a familiar voice. It's legendary coach Scotty Bowman.

The conversation, as always, was lively. As always, Scotty was on his game. On this occasion, the topic was like a master's study on playoff coaching and how difficult it is to try to keep up with the other guys considering the increased amount of advanced scouting that each team does now. It wasn't a standing-room only lecture at the university level, but it could have been, especially when he started talking about right turns.

"The playoffs are a totally different ball game ... from game to game ... sometimes from shift to shift," explained Bowman, now 72, who still serves as a consultant to the Red Wings after leading Detroit to Stanley Cups in 1997, '98 and 2002. "In the playoffs, coaches need to be far more flexible, because you don't know what's coming next with all of the advance scouting of tendencies we have today. You definitely can't be set in your ways.

"In the regular season, it's all about repetition and you push guys to play a certain way. Once you get in the playoffs, there may come a time when you have to make an abrupt right turn and make a big change. If you're going good, you want it to continue, but if you're not, all of a sudden, you may have to try something different and play a different style of game."

Knowing Scotty as I do, I figured those right turns usually mean more DEE-fense.

The thought rebounded in my mind as I watched the Red Wings beating the Stars and eventually sending them to the Stanley Cup Final for the fifth time in 12 years, going for their fourth Stanley Cup since 1997 and their first since 2002 -- the last season Bowman coached in Detroit.

Mike Babcock, who took over for Dave Lewis, who succeeded Bowman, has directed the Detroit bench for the last three seasons -- all with 50 or more wins. A Type A, effervescent personality, Babcock is at his best shouting encouragement and, well, other things, to motivate his players during the game. He's a real working-man's coach who definitely knows how to push the right buttons. But this beam was built on the foundation of puck possession and offense and disciplined defense that Bowman brought with him from Pittsburgh to Detroit back in 1993. And that isn't going to be changing any time soon. Not when the Wings have made the playoffs 17 consecutive seasons.

"You're only as good as your players," Bowman continued. "If you teach them well then you should be OK. Here, they've got stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg who have bought into the system. They work as hard on defense as they do on offense. And don't kid yourself, everyone else on the team sees how hard they work at both ends of the rink."

It's legendary about how Bowman worked with stars like Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman, getting them to surrender some of their offense and concentrate a little more on the defensive part of the game. That led to a second straight Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh in 1992 and four trips to the Finals during Scotty's days in Detroit.

"We've been pretty good at being the team that frustrates the other guys," Stars captain Brenden Morrow said. "But Detroit is doing that to us now."

"They have the puck so much, you have to take advantage of the opportunities you get," Stars center Mike Stars center Mike Modano was even more precise in his definition of Detroit's diabolical defensive tactics that limited Dallas to 21, 18 and 18 shots in the first three games against the Wings after the Stars had averaged 28.8 shots per games in the first two rounds of the playoffs. In winning Game 4 by a 3-1 count, Dallas still only managed 22 shots at Wings goaltender Chris Osgood, whose nine-game playoff winning streak was finally snapped.

"Once we fall behind they seem to be all over us," Modano explained. "It's smothering. The ice rally does seem to get smaller and that's when we seem to be trying to make those “hope-for” plays that hardly ever work and so often have resulted in them taking advantage of our mistakes and coming right back and scoring against us."

That system of puck possession and disciplined defense enabled the Colorado Avalanche to lead in the four games they had against Detroit in the second round of the playoffs for just seven minutes, 50 seconds. Before the Stars scored on a goal by Loui Eriksson with just 22.7 seconds left in the second period of Game 4, Dallas had not held a lead in this series at all.

"When I came here, I was a defensive coach and I probably still am a defensive coach," Babcock laughed. "You always evolve. But the centers that we've had in Detroit and the mobile defense allows us to play a little different game. It starts with skill and evolves into the team thing with hard work on defense ... and it's contagious.

"When you play a five-man game like we do, it's mandatory that our best players have to be great defensively. And when your back end is mobile and gets the pucks like ours does, well, that's what makes everything go for us."

"The defense the Red Wings have now is as good as I've seen in quite some time. You used to be able to be a good defensive team by holding and hooking and banging guys around. Now you gotta be very good with the puck." - Scotty Bowman
It all starts with defense and in the defensive zone to be more precise. We saw it last year at this time when the Anaheim Ducks beat the Red Wings in the conference finals and then went on to win the Stanley Cup against Ottawa, where it seemed like every shift the opposition had to find a way to beat Scott Niedermayer or Chris Pronger. If you recall, the Wings did OK against the Ducks considering top-4 d-men Mathieu Schneider and Niklas Kronwall were out with injuries and Detroit still took Anaheim to six games.

Now, this year, it's Detroit that has loaded up on defense. First, Detroit replaced Schneider with free-agent Brian Rafalski, who has formed a high-powered pairing with Nicklas Lidstrom that combined to go plus-67 during the regular season. They are followed by Kronwall and trading-deadline acquisition Brad Stuart. And they are followed by venerable in-your-face Chris Chelios and Brett Lebda.

"This team is comparable to the teams I coached," Bowman explained. "But in today's NHL there's a real premium on defense. The defense the Red Wings have now is as good as I've seen in quite some time. You used to be able to be a good defensive team by holding and hooking and banging guys around. Now you gotta be very good with the puck.

"And Nick Lidstrom is as good as he ever was. Neither he nor Brian Rafalski or Kronwall or Stuart or Chelly, they don't throw the puck away. They just keep moving it around like it's on a string. It's pretty darn impressive."

Right turns. Left turns. The Detroit Red Wings have shown the rest of the NHL they can play the game just about any way you want and still be successful.

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