DETROIT – If it isn’t already on every team's scouting report about the Detroit Red Wings, it probably should be.
Right Wing - DET
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 1
SOG: 6 | +/-: -1
In fact, it should have a permanent residence atop those reports and read something like this: “Whatever you do, by all means ... don’t kick the 'Mule.' "
That's because the “Mule” is the enigmatic Johan Franzen, who makes a habit of making opponents pay for perceived slights – and not just physically. The 6-foot-3, 223-pound forward occasionally strikes back with hard hits of his own, but he's just as prone to score goals in bunches and transform himself into the best player on the ice with the flip of a switch.
"He takes it up to another level," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said of his fellow Swede. "He got the nickname for a reason. He's a stubborn guy and he's not going to give up. He's very hard to play against."
He's also a guy with a history that suggests it's probably not a good idea to agitate him. Franzen has several memorable Stanley Cup Playoff appearances to draw from and is learning when and where to pick his spots for physical responses.
In other words, when the "Mule" is angry he can be a real bear – which is what the Nashville Predators are apparently facing going into Sunday's Game 3 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal series at Joe Louis Arena (12 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS).
Franzen and his teammates took exception to Henrik Zetterberg's head being rammed into the glass by Shea Weber after the horn sounded to end Game 1 and had a couple of his own altercations with Mike Fisher – who he accused of throwing an elbow to his face early in Game 2. Franzen was still fuming about it on Saturday when reporters asked him if he thought Nashville was simply trying to draw retaliation penalties out of him.
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"Hitting me?" Franzen asked. "As long as they don't call it, I would do the same. If I could throw an elbow at someone's nose, I would probably do it too. I don't know why they're not calling anything, but you know, it's getting a little old right now. I guess you've got to go down and scream loud to get penalties. I don't know."
While sounding off on calls or non-calls in the series, it was clear that Franzen ultimately wants his retribution on the scoreboard – not necessarily by fighting fire with fire, which could result in a costly penalty.
"I usually do something back," Franzen said of on-ice incidents. "If you get an elbow in the nose, you're not too happy about it and you're going to try and get the other guy. If the ref only sees what I do and not what they do, it’s going to get called."
Hitting, however, is something he relishes.
"Oh yeah, I like that," said Franzen, who delivered a pair of hits in Game 2 and scored the eventual game-winning goal by having a shot deflect off his knee and into the net. "I like the physical part of the game, either throwing a hit or getting one. That usually fires you up a little bit. I like that part of playoff hockey."
It's just that for some reason or another, that part of his game fades sometimes for lengthy stretches during the course of a full season. And yet, he's still led the Red Wings in goals the past two seasons – finishing this one with 29 goals and 27 assists.
It's in the playoffs, however, where Franzen has made his biggest impact – thanks to a couple of hot stretches that saw him score goals in bunches. Franzen scored 13 goals in the 2008 playoffs, which ended with Detroit's most recent Stanley Cup victory, and he followed it with 12 more in 2009, when the Wings came within one goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final from repeating as champions.
After seven NHL seasons of watching his intensity level increase every year in April, Franzen's teammates have come to realize there's basically two versions of him – the regular-season Franzen and the playoff edition.
"I think something that he really relishes are big games," said Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who's gotten to know Franzen, a fellow Swede, pretty well. "That's something that he's been doing so well for us, ever since he got here. Any time the game is on the line, you want the 'Mule' to have the puck."
Lidstrom agreed. The legendary 41-year old Red Wings captain did notice a big uptick in Franzen's intensity after the hit by Fisher in Game 2, but said that kind of thing isn't a requirement to get Franzen's best.
"He takes it up to another level. He got the nickname for a reason. He's a stubborn guy and he's not going to give up. He's very hard to play against" -- Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom on teammate Johan Franzen
"I think it's just a matter of lifting his game to another level once the playoffs come around," Lidstrom said. "I don't know if you have to do something to get him going. I just think it's playoff hockey that brings the best out of him."
That's good, because Nashville doesn't plan to ease up on Franzen or any of the Red Wings from the physical aspect. As fellow members of the highly-competitive Central Division, the Preds have played Detroit quite a bit and know all about No. 93's streaky play – both hot and cold.
It should be noted, however, that Franzen's mood or intensity level doesn't seem to factor into Nashville's overall game plan in this series.
"In the playoffs, there's no ordinary players and no ordinary situations," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said Saturday evening. "You've just got to play everybody hard, whether it's Franzen or [Gustav Nyquist] or anyone in their lineup. You've got to play them all hard, because they can all hurt you. You've seen in this series already, the third and fourth lines have contributed as much as the top guys on both teams."
While that's true, Franzen already has one game-winning goal in the first two games of the series and has shown in the past that he's got the ability to impact a series in a big way. When he's hot, not many opponents can keep him from going wherever he wants on the ice – with our without the puck. When he's cold, the opposite appears to happen.
"He was physical [in Game 2] and I think anytime he’s involved physically he’s a better player," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "He has the ability to be a big-time player and being a big-time player at this time of year is real simple."
"A lot of guys have regular-season success and can’t have any in the playoffs, just because they’re not gritty enough and determined enough," Babcock continued. "They need more space and when there’s no space you’ve got to make your own space. You’ve got to dig in and find a way to do that, so [Franzen] has the tool set and he’s always found a way to do that and we need him to do that again this year."
It's exactly how he's has playoff success in the past ... and this year, if the Predators' physical style kick-starts Franzen's game to a high level again, the Red Wings will be real pleased.
"This is his time of year," Detroit forward Justin Abdelkader said. "He's always been a big-time playoff performer. He's a big body. That's what you need in the playoffs, [a] big body that can really shoot the puck and create havoc. He definitely wears his heart on his sleeve. He's an emotional guy.'