DETROIT – Instead of preparing for home-ice advantage in the Western Conference quarterfinals, the Red Wings will instead be on a plane for Arizona.
The Wings are making a record 19th consecutive Stanley Cup playoff appearance, the longest current streak in professional sports. However, this is the first time since the 1991-92 season that the Wings are not a top-four seed.
Wings coach Mike Babcock held a press conference Monday before the team departed for Phoenix, where the No. 5 seed Wings will face the No. 4 seed Coyotes on Wednesday at 10 p.m. EDT.
“I would have liked to start another day later,” Babcock said. “But that’s the way life is, and we’ll be fine. We’re going to spend a lot of time (in Detroit) this morning, and obviously the assistant coaches have been doing a lot of breakdown on Phoenix in the last little bit, so we’ve got our presentation for our players … and everything’s organized, so we’ll be ready to go.”
The road to the 2010 playoffs was uncharacteristically bumpy at times. Usually the Wings are so dominant that they’re often in the running for the President’s Trophy as the team with the most points, winning it three of the last six seasons.
This year, they battled to even make the postseason. Injuries plagued the squad, with over 300 man-games lost due to injury. Only three players appeared in all 82 games.
“I think you wondered if we were ever going to stop getting injured,” Babcock said. “Then you wondered if you’d run out of time.”
Even Babcock had some last-minute doubts about the ability of his team to overcome the odds and clinch a playoff berth.
“I thought we’d be battling on the Sunday game on Chicago to get in the playoffs; I never realized we’d be battling trying to finish fifth,” he said. “But obviously we had a real good run, and you’ve got to give our guys that got called up during the year a lot of credit for keeping us in it.”
Now that the regular-season is over and they’ve secured a postseason berth, Babcock and his team have put all of their ups-and-downs behind them.
“Every season’s a huge challenge, I think each one presents different ones,” Babcock said. “You don’t even think about it now, you just think about getting ready for the playoffs.”
The Wings finished 2-0-2 in their season series with the Coyotes, a team that surprised many with its accomplishments. They had to be bought out of bankruptcy by the NHL, and Wayne Gretzky resigned as coach nine days before the season began.
But with coach Dave Tippett at the helm, Phoenix ended with a franchise-best 50-25-7 record.
“I like their team,” Babcock said. “It’s like anything, until you’re a good team, everyone perceives that you don’t have any players. Well, they’ve had good players for a long period of time; they just haven’t had a good team. Now they have a real good team.”
Although the Wings are much more battle-tested than the Coyotes, who are making their first playoff appearance since 2002, Babcock said the value of experience is in the eye of the beholder.
“There’s going to be a winner; that’s the bottom line,” he said. “Experience, when you don’t have it, is overrated; when you have it, you think it’s important.”
In order to be successful, the Wings must look to all of their players to score. Although Babcock often says that his best players have to be the dominant players, production from the third and fourth lines is key for the Wings.
“We don’t have as much depth in scoring,” Babcock said. “So it’s important that (Dan) Cleary continues to play on the third line, and we need (Drew Miller
) and (Patrick) Eaves and (Darren Helm
) Helmer and these guys to continue to chip in. If they can chip in, then we have enough. But some nights, your best guys are going to be checked, and they’re not going to score. You need other people to step in, and that’s why depth in scoring is so important.”
To increase their depth, the Wings have called up Justin Abdelkader
and Brad May from their AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids. However, they will have to wait for their chance, since Babcock has chosen to keep his lines the same as they have been for Game 1.
The play of Phoenix goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov is something else the Wings will have to overcome. Bryzgalov’s 42 wins are a single-season franchise record, he ranks second in the NHL with eight shutouts, and has a 2.20 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
“He’s settled his game right down and he’s been in it, and been through it before in one playoff round,” Babcock said. “So he’s a guy who understands what it takes, and we have to go get him.”
Although the Wings were forced to claw their way into the playoffs, all that matters is they’re here now and they have an opportunity to go all the way.
“We feel our team’s as healthy as it’s been all year,” Babcock said. “We have an opportunity, and that’s all we can ask for … it’s different, but we’re here now. And every year, you don’t know what’s going to happen, you’ve got to make it happen for yourself.
“There’s going to be some times in the playoffs where it doesn’t go the way you want, and you’re going to have to dig in and find a way to get it done. I’m confident in our group that we’re going to do that.”