DETROIT -- The Red Wings have been playing playoff-type games for a while but the real thing gets started this Wednesday and it will be a new experience for rookies Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou.
"I think we played in a lot of games similar to playoff games and you look at that most recent Philly game that we played here," Larkin said. "I got to assume that's close to a playoff game. For me, I'll be really excited and skating hard and just doing my part to try and help the team. I don't think I'm going to try and do anything too spectacular, just play my game."
Larkin played in all but two games this season while Athanasiou played in 37.
"It’s gonna be unbelievable, I mean, you grow up watching Don Cherry all the time and you live for those playoff series," Athanasiou said. "It really hasn’t kicked in too much, getting the opportunity to play in the NHL playoffs here. But I’m really excited and I think we’ve got a really good chance here against this team. I think we match up well."
Although the Wings have made the playoffs for 25 straight seasons, it wasn't something you could necessarily count on with the parity in the league.
"I think every time you watch a team lift the Stanley Cup, you get chills," Larkin said. "Just to have a chance to do that this year, it's really great. I didn't expect it coming into the summer. This is bonus time for me. I just wanted to make the team and now here I am in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it's a pretty good feeling."
Both Larkin and Athanasiou distinguished themselves this season with their speed, which is what defenseman Niklas Kronwall wants them to continue to use.
"Just keep doing what you’re doing," Kronwall said. "Stay within the structure of our team. Utilize the speed and talent that they have."
Larkin led the team in goals with 23 and was third on the team in points with 45, behind captain Henrik Zetterberg's 50 points and Pavel Datsyuk's 49.
Larkin described what he hopes to bring to the team as the second season begins.
"I think bringing some enthusiasm and excitement," Larkin said. "You saw the first 5-10 games, had some jump and try and just make an impact every time I'm out there. Really push the pace in our favor and put the other team on their heels."
Coach Jeff Blashill said he will give the rookies the same message as he gives the rest of the team.
"Enjoy the moment, enjoy this," Blashill said. "These are the opportunities you play for, but focus on the process, focus on the shift by shift details it takes to be successful. I had the experience with AA in a couple of playoffs in Grand Rapids, had the experience with Larkin in the playoffs last year. I don’t think either one of them will be fazed by the moment. I think they’re excited by the opportunity."
Jimmy Howard echoed Blashill's sentiments.
"Obviously in game one they're going to realize the intensity has been turned up a little bit," Howard said. "But at the same time, to go out there and enjoy yourselves. It's fortunate that they play for a great organization in the playoffs. A lot of times guys don't get to really enjoy it so just go out there and have fun."
DATSYUK'S FUTURE REMAINS IN QUESTION: Although Datsyuk told the Detroit Free Press that this is likely his last NHL season, Datsyuk said nothing is definite yet.
"It’s probably have chance," Datsyuk said. "You never know what happens. It’s hard to make a decision on what happens tomorrow, today. But everything is possible. It’s not final decision 100 percent."
Datsyuk has always felt the pull of wanting to return to play in Russia but he also has loved playing for the Wings and their fans.
"I have tough time," Datsyuk said. "I wants always to play at home, but I know this is best league and I want to play here with the best organization. They’ve helped me, supported me. I want to stay as much as possible with this organization."
Datsyuk said he was touched by the fans chanting "one more year" before their last regular-season home game against Philadelphia.
"It’s really emotional and I appreciate it," Datsyuk said. "I’m really focused on important game against Philadelphia. But it was really emotional and it set me back a bit. I appreciated the fans for chanting."
Datsyuk understands that because he's an over-35 player with a multi-year contract, the Wings face a cap hit of $7.5 million.
"I’m really troubled by this one," Datsyuk said. "I make a mistake. I need to sign year by year. Now this has happened and I need to process about it more."
For years, Datsyuk and Zetterberg have been known as the Euro Twins, often playing together on the same line.
Zetterberg said he and Datsyuk have talked about the possibility of Datsyuk returning to Russia.
"I don’t think anyone knows what goes on with Pavel, but for us now we’re focused on Tampa first and I’m 100 percent sure Pavel is focused on that too and whatever happens after happens after," Zetterberg said. "It’s like when all the guys that have been here for a long time move on. We went through it with Stevie (Yzerman) and Nick (Lidstrom) and it looks like we’re going to go through it with Pav. I’m just glad I had a chance to play with him 11 years and I’m looking forward to this last pow wow here."
Although he's had just one season with Datsyuk, Larkin says he has learned a lot.
"I haven't really seen a guy work as hard as he does," Larkin said. "He's a special talent. I'm going to miss watching him play. He's truly magic with the puck and you never know what he's going to do. I'm just happy I got to meet such a humble and hard-working guy that really set a great example for myself and has really impacted a lot of guys in this locker room so it's exciting to get a chance to play with him and see what he can do."
Blashill said no matter what, it won't be a distraction for the team.
"Everybody in this room knows how committed Pavel is to winning Game 1, and trying to win and move on and win every game from here on out," Blashill said. "I don't think it's any factor at all."
Of course the Wings could use it as an additional motivating factor.
"He’s done so much for the organization that it would be good to win another Cup for him," Danny DeKeyser said.
As for Datsyuk, he would love to make possibly his last playoff run a good one.
"For me it’s every day playoffs are special. Now it’s maybe a little bit more," Datsyuk said. "I’m just more focused. It’s game by game. Everybody talk about make it in the playoffs, consecutive, consecutive, 24, 25. We need looking forward. We need to win one series to another one, to another one. We fight for Cup, not just making the playoffs."
FUN WITH MR. COOPER: Unlike last year when the Wings met the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs, the two coaches are very close friends.
Blashill and Jon Cooper go way back, far enough that they're comfortable joking around about the other.
When asked about Cooper's unusual path to becoming an NHL coach, Blashill said, "Must have been a bad lawyer."
Cooper was a lawyer but ended up leaving that profession to coach hockey.
"I think Coop’s journey is great," Blashill said, not kidding this time. "In the end he followed his passion. I was with him the day he left for Texarkana to leave his law business for good and go to a spot that not many people have been to that certainly is not a hockey hotbed. I watched him grow a junior program from scratch in Texarkana. It was a pretty big risk but he followed his passion. Same thing I’d say to young people, follow your passion and good things will happen and they certainly have for him."
But now with their teams facing each other, how much conversation will there be?
"We’ll continue to talk," Blashill said. "I’ll have to fight through all the crap he’s feeding me, we’ll talk. It’s not like it is maybe in the summer, obviously. Him and I have been in a few playoff series, not at the NHL level. So we’ll certainly continue to talk but I’m sure he’ll keep his cards close to the vest and so will I."