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Red Wings are 'Lords of the Rink'

by Staff Writer / Detroit Red Wings
Everyone is always looking for a prediction before the first puck drops for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Most of the time, you pick your favorite stat and try to make it a trend and run with it. It could be a regular-season matchup between the playoff teams that is lopsided one way or another. Or the way a team finished the regular season. Maybe a hot goaltender down the stretch.

I'd like to introduce what I call the "Lord of the Rings" theory ... as in an Olympic equation. And while it's true no one country has dominated in the last three Olympics -- the Czech Republic winning the gold medal at Nagano, Japan, in 1998, Canada winning at Salt Lake City in 2002 and Sweden capturing the gold at Torino, Italy, earlier this year -- there is truly a "Lord of the Rinks" from 1998 and 2002.

It's the Detroit Red Wings.

The Wings, you may recall, knocked off the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998 and won the Cup again in 2002 by beating the Carolina Hurricanes. And who is to argue that the Wings don't have a great chance to once again be the real Lords of the Rings?

The theory?

"I never really believed in theories, trends or omens," said Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, shaking his head when I ran this idea by him before the last weekend of the 2005-06 NHL season when his Phoenix Coyotes were in St. Louis.

Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers were a perennial Stanley Cup contender in the 1980s, their four Cups in five years and five in seven followed dynasties by the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens. Sure the Oilers, Islanders and Canadiens lived in a world of obliterating statistical records, but when you have a team that is annually first off your lips when you are speaking of Cup contenders, there is much more involved inside that locker room that makes those teams successful. The game is won on the ice and in the hearts and minds of the men playing the game and coaching the teams, not some number that looks good on paper.

But when I look at the Red Wings, I forget about the statistics -- the fact this team had an eight-game winning streak before playing in the final game of the regular season, had points in 20 consecutive games (17-0-3) since their last loss on March 7 and had a record 12- straight wins on the road.

There was just something about looking into the eyes of Gretzky, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Billy Smith, Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson just as there is when you are talking about the Red Wings and Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby.

"I always thought our team was a strong group mentally that could control its own destiny, probably the same way Detroit does right now," Gretzky told me. "It was funny, but you remember the cliches like you're the only ones who can beat yourselves. But we truly believed that if we didn't win the Stanley Cup."

And that's where the Red Wings, New Jersey Devils and to a lesser degree the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars -- teams that still have a nucleus of their Stanley Cup teams together -- have an advantage with the leadership they have when you can feel the intensity and cut the tension and pressure with a knife before each playoff game ... and it is truly a survival of the fittest, mentally and physically.

That's what playoff hockey is all about.

"Leadership is so important," said Gretzky. "I can speak first-hand about that after the disappointment our Canadian Olympic Team had this year. I never realized how much our team would miss the leadership we got from Stevie Yzerman, Mario Lemieux and Al MacInnis when we won the gold medal in 2002. As we were going through that tournament, it became clear to me that we needed one or two more guys to help deflect the pressure of the world stage.

"When you look at the Red Wings and see how Stevie and Chris Chelios help deflect the pressure of the situation from everyone else on the team, it makes it so much easier for the other guys -- Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and the rest. Those ultimate skills and leadership qualities ... you can't underestimate teams that have that in place."

The Red Wings still have a great core of playoff experience that is so important, with Chelios (222 playoff games), Yzerman (192), Lidstrom (168), Shanahan (151), Draper (148).

But this is also a game with a new collective bargaining agreement and salary cap that helps make parity more and more relevant to the outcome of games.

"This wasn't supposed to be their year with the new CBA and salary cap and parity, yet there they are with the best record in the entire NHL," said Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Curtis Joseph, who played in Detroit in 2002-03 and 2003-04. "We didn't win while I was there, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. I don't think I've ever been in a locker room with a lot of guys who are so motivated to win.

"Just look down the lineup. Steve Yzerman and Chris Chelios, ultimate leaders, ultimate warriors. Nicklas Lidstrom, who could not only be considered as the Norris Trophy winner every year (as the NHL's best defenseman) but he could win the MVP every year. And Shanny and Drapes and Malts and the younger guys with the great skills like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

"Even though they had to cut their payroll in half to get under the cap, I look at them and say, 'Why can't they win another Stanley Cup?' "

Coyotes winger Boyd Devereaux was with the Red Wings in 2002 -- and he remembers some great ups, but some downs, too.

"We caused an awful lot of nervousness because we were terrible down the stretch, lost something like seven games in a row when we rested some of the regulars who played in the Olympics and had had a very long year," Devereaux recalled. "And then when we went down 2-0 in Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs, everyone back in Detroit was freaking out.

"I'll never forget how Steve Yzerman calmly stood up in front of all of us before Game 3 and made a big-time speech that I'm sure will be replayed in all of our minds forever. From then on, we had a vision and we weren't going to be beaten."

Yzerman was playing on one leg, needing knee surgery after the playoffs. But the motivation was there and you could see the pressure that was on let's say a Dominik Hasek change.

"I'd say it's been a continuance -- a few players going in and out," said Barry Smith, assistant head coach in Phoenix now and a former assistant head coach to Scotty Bowman in Detroit. "The main nucleus is still there and they've brought in some free agents, but so many of their draft choices have kind of evolved into the system working their way into the roles they now have like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Jason Williams."

And then there's the system. No longer the tight left-wing lock on defense because of the way the referees are calling the game. But let there be no mistake, the Red Wings are still one of the most disciplined teams defensively in the game.

"But when I think of the Red Wings, the first thing that comes to mind is puck possession," said St. Louis Blues coach Mike Kitchen. "When they have the puck, they put pressure on your defense all over the ice. And, when they don't have the puck, they pressure you to get it back."

Smith agrees that puck possession is the Red Wings' strength.

"When you're a puck possession team you really don't have to play defense," Smith said. "Players like Nick Lidstrom and Mathieu Schneider and the rest of their defensemen are so good in transition that the puck always seems to be moving forward -- out of Detroit's zone and into the other team's end.

"We always had players who could make good passes. And, bottom line, we felt if we had the puck the other team couldn't score. And special teams have also always been good there."

So, as we head into this year's playoffs, it's nice to look at the statistics and say these guys are good. But, from the words of some pretty smart hockey people, you now realize the Red Wings represent more than just some pretty incredible stats.

"Some stats like that long run on the road by the Red Wings shows the character they have on that team," Gretzky said. "Those numbers aren't about parity in the NHL. When I take the Phoenix Coyotes into Nashville, Chicago and St. Louis, it isn't the same as the Detroit Red Wings coming in where there's an almost automatic hostile environment and an amazing amount of pressure to account for.

"Everyone is ready to knock them off now the same as they were ready every night to play the Edmonton Oilers when I was there or the New York Islanders or Montreal Canadiens when they were at their peak. That's one stat that really is impressive and tells me a little about the makeup, the leadership inside that locker room."

Edmonton Oilers defenseman Chris Pronger knows all about how tough it is to beat the Red Wings. This is the 10th consecutive season he's made it into the playoffs. Half of them have involved series against Detroit when he played in St. Louis ... and he's never won one. Now, in his first season in Edmonton, Detroit shows up first on the Oilers' playoff schedule.

"My first taste of the playoffs came in 1996," Pronger recalled. "We beat Toronto in the first round of the playoffs and then went to double overtime in Game 7 against Detroit. It seemed like a lot of fun until Steve Yzerman scored from outside the blue line.

"Through the years, it seemed like Detroit stood between us and doing something real good in the playoffs. But they always found a way to win."

So, forget the omens, trends and statistics. The Red Wings are once again a Stanley Cup favorite because of the character, emotion and leadership on that Detroit roster.

Take a look at your favorite team and see if they have those important intangibles as they get ready for the start of the playoffs.
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