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Success starts at blue line for Wings, Ducks

by Larry Wigge / Detroit Red Wings
DETROIT -- My fascination with this Detroit-Anaheim series starts and stops at the blue line of both the Red Wings and Ducks.

Think about it. Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart along with the fast-rising Jonathan Ericsson for the Wings and Scott Niedermayer and Francois Beauchemin and Chris Pronger and Ryan Whitney with tough-as-nails James Wisniewski for the Ducks.

No offense to the exploits of Johan Franzen, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk along with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Each game seems to revolve around two or more of these difference-making defensemen -- either offensively, defensively or both.

When I started to write this column, I remembered how St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray told me a short time ago how he felt building from the defense out was the key to success in the National Hockey League.

"We are all constantly at work trying to figure out who we have as our No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 defensemen," Murray told me before mentioning the names Niedermayer and Pronger. "But they are the only team that has all four of those spots in just two players."

The ultimate compliment. First to the position and then to Niedermayer and Pronger. Murray made a similar comment about Lidstrom and the threesome he has behind him in Detroit.

And think about it -- what made the Ducks Stanley Cup champions in 2007 and then the Red Wings last year, where everything clearly revolves around strong defensive units.

Copy cats? No. Just smart GMs.

First it was Ducks GM Brian Burke, who went out and signed Niedermayer as a free agent and then traded for Pronger and Anaheim won the Stanley Cup in 2007. Then it was Wings GM Ken Holland who replaced Mathieu Schneider on defense with free agent Brian Rafalski and traded for Stuart to help Detroit win last year's Stanley Cup. When things didn't look so rosy for the Ducks this season, new GM Bob Murray acquired Whitney from Pittsburgh and Wisniewski from Chicago in separate deals before the NHL's trade deadline and Beauchemin was activated from a long absence following early-season knee surgery.

"I can't say that we followed them or they followed us," Bob Murray said before the Ducks-Wings Western Conference Semifinals began in Detroit. "All I know is our franchise was built on the success we had on defense with Niedermayer and Pronger -- one or both -- being on the ice for us almost every shift.

"When Brian Burke went out and signed Scott and traded for Chris, we set a value on our defense being strong both defensively and offensively."

For months it didn't look like the Ducks were even going to qualify for the playoffs, particularly after Beauchemin was lost to injury early. But after Murray got Whitney and Wisniewski and Beauchemin returned, the Ducks suddenly looked mightier on defense than they did in '07 ... to the tune of a 10-2-1 finish and a first-round upset of the No. 1-seeded San Jose Sharks in the first round of the playoffs.

"In the game today, you have to move the puck up the ice," Murray explained. "We have good forwards and you have to get the puck to the forwards. We knew Whitney can do that. We thought Wisniewski could help us out with that as well. And when Beauch came back, well, our whole team seemed to be headed in a different direction."

Said Whitney, "I saw how good the Wings were first-hand in the Finals. Everything revolves around those d-men -- Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall and Stuart and how they stop you and quickly work the puck up to their talented forwards."

The game today is all about speed and smarts -- and that begins on defense.

The headlines may show the exploits of the great forwards in Detroit and Anaheim, but the bottom line revolves around the defenses.

From Lidstrom's two goals and the game-winner in the final minute of play in Game 1 to the unheard of 46 minutes, 21 seconds of ice time for Pronger in the triple-overtime victory, it's been all about how good the two defenses have been.

Even in Game 6, when it looked like the Red Wings were going to go out to Anaheim and wrap up the series. While Getzlaf and Perry scored the goals in a 2-1 victory, Niedermayer and Pronger were also on the ice for the Ducks' two goals.

And if indeed Holland saw something he liked in Anaheim's Cup run in 2007, it came on defense.

"Ever since we won two straight Cups back in 1997 and '98, we realized that it would be more difficult to build another championship team on high-priced offensive stars -- particularly in a salary-cap era," Holland said. "I remember telling (assistant GM) Jimmy Nill we knew that Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan would all someday leave. To be competitively strong every year, we agreed we had to concentrate on taking the best defensemen we could find each year in the draft."

Capitals/Penguins Playoff Gear Ducks GearRed Wings gear Burke told me earlier this year that despite the cap number, defense was the most important position in the new rules NHL.

"You put together the kind of game plan you think you make you most successful," Burke told me. "It just so happens that we spent a lot of our salary cap on two great defensemen."

The last word went to Bob Murray.

"We're a new-rules team," he explained. "Brian and I both believe that in order to re-tool our team to take advantage of the new rules to the maximum, we needed excellent foot speed on defense, plus an ability to get back and retrieve pucks and get out of our zone."

When you sit down to watch an exciting Game 7 between Detroit and Anaheim on Thursday night, don't get caught up with the fancy moves up front. Watch how effortlessly the pucks gets moved up the ice -- from defense to offense.

It's what fascinates me every time I watch the Wings and Ducks play.

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