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Notebook: Rusty relishes playoff intensity

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – It was three years ago this week that Ruslan Salei scored his last goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

He was a member of the Colorado Avalanche then. That spring the Red Wings swept the Avs in four straight games, eliminating them from the conference semifinals.


Past injuries and a recent battle for the sixth spot on the team’s last defensive pairing left some wondering whether Salei or rookie Jakub Kindl should be playing at this time of year for the Wings.

Put the controversy to rest.

Salei has played a solid lockdown defensive style in the Wings’ Western Conference quarterfinals series against Phoenix. The 36-year-old also contributed offensively in Monday’s Game 3 win, launching a slap shot from the right point for an early 1-0 lead that instantly neutralized the Coyotes’ boisterous fans at Arena.

“Rusty was real good when he got here and then things weren’t as good for him,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “And then obviously, the playoff intensity is what we got him for and he’s played real well.”

The Wings went out and got Salei in the off-season to add depth and playoff experience to the blueline. He played for Babcock in Anaheim when the Ducks reached the 2003 Stanley Cup finals before losing Game 7 to the New Jersey Devils.

Now that Salei has returned to the postseason with a team that has a legitimate chance at winning the Cup, he is relishing every intense moment.

“These are really important games as far as making teams pay for mistakes,” Salei said. “You have to try to avoid making mistakes, because in the playoffs those mistakes are magnified.”

Against the Coyotes, the Wings have cut down on the defensive mistakes that hindered the last month or so of the regular-season. They are more focused on the fundamentals: clearing traffic from the slot and cleaning up rebounds in front of goalie Jimmy Howard.

“But the big difference with us now from the end of the regular-season is commitment, Salei said. “The commitment to do the right things; the commitment to work in the system and do your part, and trust one another; it’s a team game.”

While it was nice to get a goal in Monday’s win – the seventh postseason tally for him in 54 career playoff games – Salei put it perspective following Tuesday’s practice at the Ice Den.

“It’s always nice to score a goal, and it’s always nice to score a goal in the playoffs,” he said. “Overall, I don’t think the personal things even matter in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter how many goals you score in the playoffs if you don’t go all the way to the top. Nobody is going to remember that. To me, I can try to help this team anyway that I can and if that’s scoring goals, or doing whatever it takes to help.”

Speaking about Wednesday night’s elimination game, Salei is certain that the Wings will need to match the Coyotes’ intensity if they are to win Game 4.

“They’re in a fight for their lives and we’re going to be prepared for that,” he said. “It’s going to be the toughest of this series. … I’m pretty sure it will be.”

CLOSEOUT SPECIAL: With a win on Wednesday, the Wings can finish off the Coyotes and give themselves some extra rest time before they found out who their opponent will be in the next round.

Under Babcock’s tutelage, Wednesday’s Game 4 is the third time that the Wings have held a 3-0 series lead. They completed sweeps of Colorado in the 2008 conference semifinals and of Columbus in the 2009 conference quarterfinals.

But following Tuesday’s practice it was the 2008 conference finals that Babcock served up as an example of defeating the opposition when they’re down.

“We were in this situation against Dallas and had to go into Dallas in ’08 and win a Game 6 to clinch the series,” Babcock said, “and you never want to let your foot off the gas. The other thing is, why would you play more games then you have to?”

Center Pavel Datsyuk, who did not practice on Tuesday, but will play in Game 4 against Phoenix, would prefer to wrap-up this opening round series on Wednesday.

“If you remember last year here, in Game 7, it took a lot of time for travel and it took our energy,” Datsyuk said.

Yet the Wings don’t expect that the Coyotes will concede the series. Babcock highly anticipates a very physical brand of play, much like it was in Game 3 when Phoenix out-hit the Wings, 36-27.

“I would expect so,” Babcock said. “And yet if we do a better job in the neutral zone and our own zone then we won’t have to worry about that as much. So a part of that was them and a part of it was us as well, not executing like we should.”

Datsyuk added, “Always when a team plays (at) home they are always more aggressive, more physical with their crowd cheering for them and it gives them extra energy.”

The Wings are 13-4 overall, and 11-3 on the road when taking a 3-0 series lead into Game 4.

GOOD & BAD: The Wings’ 5-on-5 defense has been outstanding, allowing just two even-strength goals, both coming in Game 1 of the series. Only Pittsburgh has allowed fewer even-strength tallies in the playoffs.

On the downside, the Coyotes have five power-play goals in the last two games, including one on a 5-on-3 advantage late in Game 2.

“That’s positive,” said Babcock, of his team’s 5-on-5 defense. “Yet we gave up some opportunities yesterday that we didn’t like; our goaltender had to be better than we would have liked him to be. Our penalty-kill, we have to get back to doing a better job on their entries. We gave up two entry goals yesterday when we just … the sticks didn’t do the right things, so we’ll get that sorted out. And we have to be aggressive on the penalty-kill. All in all, we think we can do better without the puck than we were, and that will allow us to be better with the puck.”

ICE TIME: While his time ice in the playoffs is down a smidge over the regular-season, Niklas Kronwall has assumed a larger role designed to cut down on the wear and tear on the blue line.

While Kronwall’s 22:12 minutes per game in the playoffs is down 40-seconds from the regular-season, he’s logged the most minutes of any Wings player in the first three games of the series against Phoenix.

For Lidstrom, the increased workload on Kronwall is a welcomed change.

“It’s something that I asked the coaching staff and it’s been planned, especially in the playoffs,” Lidstrom said. “We’re hoping for a long run and it keeps us fresher.”

The captain also recognizes an increase in Kronwall’s leadership.

“He’s been getting a bigger role on the team,” Lidstrom said. “And I think he feels confident in that role too. You hear it more on the bench, he’s just more encouraging. Pushing the guys.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter at: @roosebill
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