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Zetterberg the perfect choice for Conn Smythe

by Phil Coffey

Henrik Zetterberg’s tremendous two-way play, not only in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a whole, but in the Final in particular, made him the winner of the Conn Smythe for Most Valuable Player honors.   WATCH highlights from Game 6
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PITTSBURGH – At first glance, there seemed to be so many candidates for the 2008 Conn Smythe Trophy that you wondered who would win.

In the end, there really was only one choice.

Henrik Zetterberg’s tremendous two-way play, not only in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as a whole, but in the Final in particular, made him the winner of the Conn Smythe for Most Valuable Player honors.

Zetterberg scored the game-winning goal in Game 6 to clinch the Stanley Cup in the 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins and he also assisted on the opening goal of the game, a power-play tally by Brian Rafalski. But it was Zetterberg’s strong defensive play and penalty-killing expertise that really set his game apart.

“It feels pretty good,” Zetterberg said in typical understated fashion. “It's been a long way. And it's been a long season, especially the last few nights. (We) found a way to battle back. It’s just a great feeling right now.”

Zetterberg joined with defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall to kill off a pair of two-man disadvantages in the Final, helping pave the way to victory in the series. Those sometimes get lost in the shuffle in a long series, but Wings coach Mike Babcock was always front and center in extolling the virtues of his top players.

“Him and Pavel and Nick and Rafi and Kronwall, they're all the same in a way,” Babcock said, ticking off the names of some prominent Wings. “Franzen as well. Maybe (Valtteri) Filppula. They're all our best offensive people and our best defensive people as well.

“We're fortunate,” he said after Zetterberg’s PK skills helped the Wings to a Game 4 win. “I thought the five-on-three, we had to get a stop there. We did. Zetterberg did a great job. Came off the ice. Pavel went out and did a great job. And they called a timeout. So Z was allowed to go back out there again.

“I think intelligent players with good hockey sense, you have a structure on your team,” Babcock said. “But they take the structure to another level, because they know what's going on.  They read plays. They cut off lanes. They know how to be in the right spot. And the guys who think offensively, in my opinion, have a chance to be elite defensive players, because they know what they do. And so that gets them to a whole other level. And they're conscientious, and they work hard, because they're good defensively. They spend a lot of time on offense.”

It’s hard to get a rise out of Zetterberg. He is low-key to the extreme, but that may well be another of his top assets. Killing off a two-man disadvantage in the first period of Game 6, Zetterberg was typically nonplussed.

“Well, of course it was huge,” Zetterberg said. “It's not the first time they had a two-minute advantage. Of course, it was a great opportunity for them to score. But we battled through it. And we kept the puck outside the net.”

Well, he did use the word “huge,” so maybe he’s starting to get revved up like some of his teammates.

Zetterberg figures there isn’t much to get overly excited about. Detroit’s success, after all, is the product of hard work and experience (we won’t mention his outrageous skills). But the Wings were at a critical stage of the Final entering Game 6. A loss to the Pens would have wiped out what had been a 3-1 edge and set up a winner-take-all Game 7. But Zetterberg figured that it wouldn’t be a problem because of the Wings’ experience.

“We've been there before,” he said. “We knew that even if we lost Game 5, we play good on the road. And we just had a mindset, we're going to play a good game. And we had a great start, and we just kept going. Kind of what we did in Dallas (in the Western Conference Finals). It's great to have that behind us, and we know we could pull it off. And we did.”

Everything in life should be so simple. But Zetterberg was far from dismissive of his foes in the Final. He and his teammates had great respect for the Penguins and the strong play they brought to the Final.

“They battled really hard,” he said. “They were down 3-1 and came to our building, and, I think, their first period in our arena was unbelievable. They just came at us. We really didn't have anything to answer it. But overall, I think they played really good.  They had some really skilled players. It's a young team, and they're going to be a good team for many years to come.”

The Red Wings’ triumph marked a big achievement for European players such as Lidstrom, who became the first European captain to raise the Stanley Cup, and Zetterberg, who took home the Conn Smythe.

“It's a great feeling,” Zetterberg said. “There's been a lot of talk about that throughout the years. It's great see him lifting the Cup and with the ‘C’ on his chest. It means so much for the team and the organization. He's bringing it every night. He's probably our best player every night. And I'm really happy for him. And as I say, it was a great feeling seeing him lift that Cup.”

"Henrik, he's a complete player," Red Wings GM Ken Holland said. "He's got great hands, great instincts, he's great in traffic and he really sees the ice well. Over the years I've seen a lot of great players who don't work hard enough to be better. I always tell our scouts, 'Tell me when a smaller guy shows you he can do it and when a bigger guy shows you he can't.' It's clear Henrik always plays bigger than his size."

"He can pass and he can shoot at an elite level,” Lidstrom said. “That's what makes him so difficult to stop, because you don't know what he's going to do. Seeing that kind of skill coming at you again and again makes defenders back off and creates openings for his teammates."

Perhaps Babcock put it best.

"You're never going to outwork Hank, that's for sure," he said.

And once again the winning coach had the right idea.

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