COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As if flipping a switch, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock always has his team ready in the playoffs.
After plodding through the rigors of a mundane regular-season, the defending Stanley Cup champions have been almost perfect in taking a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Game 3 is Tuesday night in the first-ever playoff game in Columbus.
"They've waited the whole year to go and do this again," Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock said Sunday. "We've got to assume they'll be all in again. That's the way they've played the first two games. They've played better in these two games than they've played all year. They knew the time of year it was, they ratcheted it up, they waited, they rested, and they're ready to go."
The Blue Jackets, making their first foray into the playoffs in their eight seasons, expected as much. They even got a sneak peak.
Back on March 7, before a crowd of 20,066 in Hockeytown, the Blue Jackets humiliated the Wings 8-2. Rick Nash had three goals to lead the way as Columbus embarrassed veteran goaltender Chris Osgood, who was booed by the home crowd. It was the most goals the Blue Jackets had ever scored in a game and their widest victory margin in franchise history.
Eight days later, the teams renewed acquaintances in Columbus. This time the Red Wings weren't killing time until the postseason, they were stone-cold serious and out to make a point. Two points, in fact. Osgood stopped all 23 shots he saw in a 4-0 win and the Red Wings reassured the upstart Blue Jackets that they were still the very same club that captured four Stanley Cups in the last 11 seasons. And that they had no intention of stepping aside any time soon.
The Red Wings don't hide the fact that those first 82 games are just a prelude to them.
"We were a little bored at the end of the season," Osgood said. "That sounds bad, but it's honest. We were looking forward to the playoffs 100 percent. We couldn't wait to get through that last month. I was actually shocked by how many wins we got in March. We were always talking about getting to the playoffs. We couldn't wait."
They won just two of their final eight games heading into the playoffs.
"If you compare our last two (playoff) games to our previous seven, eight or nine games, it's almost like two different teams," defenseman Brad Stuart said. "Part of that is there's more excitement, but also knowing that at this time of year if you don't do that, you'll find yourself hitting the exits pretty soon. So you find a way to crank it up a bit."
The thing is, while some defending champions may not be motivated due to their success, the Red Wings still have plenty of incentive.
Stellar forward Marian Hossa passed on millions of dollars in long term contracts elsewhere to sign on with Detroit for his best chance at a long-awaited championship ring. Stars such as Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom - the list goes on and on - all remain in the Motor City because they cherish championships far more than wealth or celebrity.
"They want to repeat, so they're going to be extremely hungry," Columbus forward Michael Peca said. "They've got a guy who signed a one-year contract because he wanted to win a Stanley Cup, so he's a motivated player. They've got a goaltender who's trying to prove to everybody that he can still play. So there's a lot of reasons for those guys to play extremely hard. And they have."
The Red Wings got off to a slow start in the first 30 minutes of Game 1 but regrouped for a 4-1 win. In Game 2 on Saturday, Osgood smothered all 25 shots he saw. Nash, who had two hat tricks against Osgood in the regular season, hasn't gotten a point so far.
Now Columbus must figure out a way to apply the brakes to the winged wheels.
"That's the biggest difference in the series, that they have played different in the postseason than they did in the regular season," Hitchcock said. "They've had the ability - they did it last year - and they have the knowledge. They're using that knowledge and that ability."