If Sylvester Stallone hadn't made "Rocky" way back when, then this would be it. The matchup between the defending champion Detroit Red Wings
and the Columbus Blue Jackets
, making their first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, is the ultimate underdog story.
The Wings are loaded and have won at least 50 games four seasons running. Detroit has elite players at every position, starting with the likes of Pavel Datsyuk
, Nicklas Lidstrom
, Henrik Zetterberg
and Marian Hossa
The Blue Jackets have a rookie goalie in Steve Mason
who has carried the load all season, a smart coach and players who follow his plan like zealots.
Are the odds against Columbus? Sure. That's half the fun of this matchup that sees Rick Nash
, like his team, make his playoff debut.
As predicted before the regular season began, Detroit's forward group is dominant and well balanced. The Wings have size, depth, speed, experience -- and a heck of a lot of skill.
Coach Mike Babcock has options, but expect to see Pavel Datsyuk
and Marian Hossa
together, likely with Tomas Holmstrom
. Henrik Zetterberg
should be centering a line with Johan Franzen
and Dan Cleary
Each of the Wings' third liners -- Valtteri Filppula
, Jiri Hudler
and Mikael Samuelsson
-- played on last year's Cup-winning team. Kirk Maltby
and Kris Draper
have four rings apiece, and Tomas Kopecky
should join them on the fourth line.
Datsyuk is a likely candidate for both the Hart and the Selke Trophies with 97 points, a plus-34 rating and 89 takeaways. Hossa spurned long-term offers from a couple of clubs and opted to sign a one-year deal with the Wings with the specific purpose of winning the Stanley Cup this season.
, the team's captain, is finally getting a chance to show what he can do in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Don't let Nash's age fool you. He's 24, but he's been in the NHL since he was 18. He feels he's capable of taking over any game at any time -- and he's coming off his best regular season.
Nash has developed a kinship with winger Kristian Huselius
, and Manny Malhotra
seems to fit in nicely between the two -- but that's always subject to change as coach Ken Hitchcock rarely sticks with lines for too long. Huselius missed the last week with concussion-like symptoms but is expected to play.
That being said, it appears the duo of Antoine Vermette
and R.J. Umberger
has enough chemistry to stay together when everyone is healthy. Jason Williams
slots in with them. Raffi Torres
, Michael Peca
and Jared Boll
form a line of guys that would skate through the wall.
The return of Jason Chimera
should help augment an already enviable amount of depth up front.
Two words: Nicklas Lidstrom
. Two more: Enough said.
The Red Wings have the dominant defenseman of this generation on their side, and the advantage has led to four championships in the past 11 years. But Lidstrom is hardly alone -- and he's far from the only experienced vet on the blue line.
has three Stanley Cup rings, including two he won with New Jersey. Brad Stuart
, Niklas Kronwall
and Brett Lebda
played key roles in last year's Cup run.
So, too, did Andreas Lilja
; but he's been out since Feb. 28 with a concussion. If he's still out to start the playoffs, look for either Jonathan Ericsson
or Derek Meech
to play. Chris Chelios
remains an option as well.
The Jackets do a fantastic job of playing Hitchcock's system and limiting the number of shots Mason has to face.
and Jan Hejda
work well together and are rarely noticeable, which is always a good thing when talking defensemen. Commodore was a plus-11 and Hejda a plus-23.
is the Jackets most-versatile defenseman. He can play a physical game and also sees plenty of time on the power play. Tyutin led the Jackets in time on ice per game with more than 23 minutes.
's health has been an issue all season. If he can play in the playoffs, Marc Methot
will drop down to the third pair with Kris Russell
, another power-play performer, and Klesla will play with Tyutin. Christian Backman
Tale of the tape
G - DET (#30)
HEIGHT: 5'10" WEIGHT: 178
G - CBJ (#1)
height: 6' 4"
finished the season with the worst numbers of his career, but the three-time Cup-winner tells NHL.com he's been building toward the playoffs and he feels this will be his time to shine -- again. Should he flounder, Ty Conklin
is waiting in the wings. But Conklin has appeared in only one playoff game.
He's only 20, but Calder Trophy candidate Steve Mason
could morph into the talk of the playoffs -- just as he became the talk of the regular season -- if he puts together a solid start to the postseason. Mason gives Columbus something it never had before: a goalie who gives the team confidence he can steal a win.
Mike Babcock has turned into the pre-eminent coach in the NHL thanks to last spring's Stanley Cup victory. Babcock has led the Wings to the best record in the NHL across the past four seasons and has coached in the Cup Final twice, including in 2003 with Anaheim.
With Ken Hitchcock, the Jackets have a puncher's chance. He led Dallas to the Stanley Cup Final twice, taking home the title in 1999. He also got Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Final five years ago. Hitchcock's experience and presence makes a difference as the Jackets embark on their first-ever playoff run.
Detroit's power play operated at a 25.5 percent rate of success, the League's most-effective man-advantage unit. The penalty kill, though, has been surprisingly average. You would expect more of the Wings considering how good they are supposed to be defensively; but they were just a pedestrian 78.3 percent effective in kill situations -- No. 25 in the League
The contrast between the Jackets' penalty kill and power play is stunning. Their penalty kill has helped them win a lot of games this season because their power play wasn't getting it done. Columbus was No. 13 on the penalty kill (82.1 percent); but dead last on the power play (12.7 percent).
Steve Mason, Columbus --
For the Blue Jackets to have a chance in this series, Mason will have to be even better than he was during his amazing regular season. The Red Wings have too much firepower for Columbus to even entertain thoughts of playing run-and-gun hockey. The Jackets will have to keep the scores low and set a more plodding tone to keep Detroit bottled up. But the key to whatever plan Hitchcock comes up with will be Mason making as many saves as humanly possible.
Detroit will win if...
It doesn't get flustered. Too often, good goalies seem to get in the head of the Red Wings, who like to make the pretty play and score the fancy goal. Mason has shown the ability to stone even the most offensive of teams, so the Red Wings can't lose their composure if the rookie steals a period, or even a game. The Red Wings have the talent and the tenacity to break through against any team -- as long as they stick with the game plan that has served them so well during the regular season.
Columbus will win if...
They do everything absolutely right. It's no big secret to say that the Blue Jackets will have to be at the top of their game in order to solve the defending Cup champion. But Hitchcock has a way of making his team's play close-to-perfect hockey. For this team, it means getting consistent scoring from a line other than Nash's, killing power plays effectively and scoring on their own power play more often than once every blue moon. If they can do all that -- and Mason is on his game -- the Jackets have a puncher's chance here.