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A continued commitment to excellence

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
DETROIT – With Sunday’s exciting, playoff atmosphere-like win over Nashville, the Red Wings are one point away from locking up the Presidents’ Trophy for an unprecedented sixth time. Only five teams have won the coveted prize – that comes with home ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs – twice.

The earliest the Red Wings can wrap-up the league’s best overall record is Tuesday if Los Angeles can hold San Jose to one point or none. Otherwise, the Wings can finish the race by pulling a point out of Wednesday’s game at Chicago.

While the accomplishment of finishing the regular-season marathon on top of the heap means home ice advantage, fewer than 30 percent of past President’ Trophy winners have gone on to win the league’s Holy Grail.

The last team to win both trophies in the same season was Detroit in 2002.

“I’m proud about winning,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “People can talk about it all they want. It’s hard to win in this league every single night. You can’t convince me that you’re more prepared by getting in on the last day than you are by being here.

“Winning leads to winning. Does that mean you’re going to win every year? No. But you keep knocking on the door and giving yourself a chance. I believe that and I believe in excellence.”

Twelve different teams have won the Presidents' Trophy, yet only six -- including Edmonton in 1987; Calgary in 1989; New York Rangers in 1994; Dallas in 1999; Colorado in 2001 -- of the past 21 winners have capped the same season with a Stanley Cup championship. Coincidentally, all six teams have captured the Presidents' Trophy at least twice each.

It’s no mystery that injuries, especially to key personnel, have been a thorn for the Red Wings lately. Still, guys like Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall, Chris Chelios, Henrik Zetterberg are healthy again after dealing with prolonged injuries this season.

Injuries were an issue just before and during the 2007 playoffs when defensemen Mathieu Schneider and Kronwall went down.
“Think about how close we were last year, or how far we were, and how unhealthy we were,” Babcock said. “Maybe this can be our year, health-wise. That’s all you can hope for and play as hard as you can. At some point it’s not about skill, but about will and determination. It’s the same old mantra that you hear year after year, but it’s the facts.”

While the Red Wings came close to getting to the Stanley Cup finals, Babcock also believes the team’s roster is more seasoned, which will matter once the 16-team tournament begins next week.

The Wings’ coach only has to point to players like Johan Franzen, Mikael Samuelsson and Dan Cleary as examples of guys who have provided a second- and third-tier offensive punch, supplementing the expected scoring from Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg.

“I think we’re better suited for it,” Babcock said. “I think the Mule is a better player. I think Sammy is a proven playoff performer. I think Cleary is a proven playoff performer. These are bigger bodies. Pav and Hank are proven playoff performers. You couldn’t say all of that last year. Kronwall is a different player, and Rafalski has been a huge help to this team. And he’s won.”

A lot has been made of Detroit’s perceived softness, and that once the playoffs start, bigger, stronger Western Conference teams like San Jose and Anaheim will push the Red Wings around.

Not true, Babcock said, using fourth line guys, Dallas Drake, Mark Hartigan and Aaron Downey as prime examples.

“I thought (Sunday), in limited minutes, I thought that Dolly and Hartigan and Downs were great,” Babcock said. “They were physical. They wracked up some bodies in a hurry and that’s what you need from those guys. I was real impressed with that group, and it continues to be important that everybody finds a way to contribute.”

For a team that supposedly isn’t physical enough, the Red Wings do a very good job of keeping the puck out of their own net. Case in point is the 175 goals that Detroit has allowed this season.

“The last three years we’ve been second, third and now we’re right here,” said Babcock of the league’s overall GAA. “Everyone talks about this small, skilled, soft group here in Detroit, and I live here and that’s not the group that I know. There’s always been a commitment to that, and there remains to be a commitment to that. And that’s what we think leads to success in the end.”

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