-- There was an opening as wide as the Detroit River that allowed Nicklas Lidstrom
to follow up his own rebound for the winning goal with 49.1 seconds left to give the Red Wings a 3-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
That kind of opening happens only when more than one impact player is doing his job -- as has become synonymous with the success of the defending Stanley Cup champions. In this instance, it was Johan Franzen
hard at work.
"Credit 'Mule' occupying Chris Pronger and taking him out of the play," Lidstrom said, using Franzen's nickname. "Every game Johan Franzen
makes two or three game-changing plays. I saw the opening and jumped into the play. But I never dreamed the rebound would be there for me like it was."
Earlier in the game, Franzen powered around Francois Beauchemin, then barged toward the net and slipped a shot between Jonas Hiller's pads at the start of a five-minute power play 12:33 into the first period to tie the score 1-1. With the score tied 2-2 just 1:30 into the third period, Franzen darted through center ice, past Pronger and Beauchemin, only to be stopped by Hiller on a breakaway. But in the final moment, Franzen was Johnny on the spot to give Lidstrom time and space to beat Hiller for the winning goal.
"I like when the game's on the line. It calms me down a little bit, as crazy as that may sound," Franzen said. "You see other players rushing their shots or hurrying to make a play and it doesn't work for them. If you're patient, I've always found that the play will come to you … or an opening will come for you and you can be proactive."
Unless you've been vacationing in some non-hockey outpost for the last 12 months, you've no doubt heard a little about Franzen, a guy from Landsbro, Sweden, who wasn't drafted until he was 24 1/2 years old, with the 97th pick in the 2004 Entry Draft, after being passed over six times by NHL scouts. He never scored more than 12 goals in any season before 2007-08 -- but has emerged as one of the most dangerous players in the game.
"It's amazing how often he's been in a position to make a play or score a goal since he got a chance to play regularly," Wings center Henrik Zetterberg
said. "He got a chance last March when Tomas Holmstrom
and Dan Cleary were out with injuries, and he's been unbelievable."
"He's a gamer. He's a good goal-scorer, period," said Cleary, who has been playing on a line with Zetterberg and Franzen for a lot of important goals in the last part of this season and in the playoffs. "He didn't realize how big and strong and talented he was. Now he does. He's got hands that are so strong … only they're capable of this soft skill, if you know what I mean.
"All I know is this isn't a one-time thing for Johan."
Franzen has scored a game-winning goal in each of his past six playoff series and in seven of eight since the start of the 2007 postseason. With his goal in Game 1 against Anaheim, he has scored a goal in 10 of his last 17 playoff series -- totaling 15 goals and six game-winners.
Just call him Mr. Clutch.
The actual total is more than unbelievable. He not only led the Wings' Cup run last spring with a League-leading 13 goals in just 16 games, but he now has 20 goals in 45 career playoff games. He had 15 goals in 16 regular-season games in March 2008, which, added to his postseason output, gave him 28 goals in his last 32 games, including 11 game-winners.
This season, he had 34 goals in 71 games, including eight game-winners -- and he now has three goals in five playoff games and one more game-winner.
Franzen's a unique player. There aren't many guys who are 6-3, 220 pounds, and can score 30 or more goals.
He kind of shrugs his shoulders and says he doesn't know how to answer a question of how good he could be.
"Do you mean do I realize I might not be that guy who gets one goal every 10 or 15 games anymore?" laughs the power forward with the physical gifts of a tight end who can turn any play into a touchdown with his combination of size and speed. "Well, yeah. I'm pretty confident now. I guess I go out there with the mindset that I can do this, because I have proven I can. Amazing, isn't it?"
Franzen figured he could make a good living playing in the Swedish Elite League. Never gave the NHL a thought until that day in June in 2004 when he got a call from Red Wings European scout Hakan Andersson to tell him Detroit had picked him in the Draft.
He admits now that he didn't really know what it all meant -- other than the fact the Wings had had success in drafting Lidstrom, Zetterberg and Holmstrom, among others, from Sweden. He wondered if he had a chance.
"I didn't start playing hockey at anything other than a lower tier hockey back home until I was 19," he recalled after Game 1. "I wasn't drafted by the NHL until I was 25. I'd say that's a late bloomer, wouldn't you?
"Back in Landsbro, I had to get a job in the summer. I remember working at a metal factory. I also remember working in a window company. And I hated every minute of it. I guess you could say that was motivation for me to work harder at my hockey career."
The hard work paid off big-time for Johnny come lately late in the season when Franzen was rewarded with a new 11-year, $43 million contract.
Sounds like a money player, doesn't he?