Will winning an unprecedented sixth Presidents' Trophy and subsequent home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs place unwarranted pressure on the Stanley Cup-or-bust Red Wings this postseason?
Coach Mike Babcock doesn't think so. Maybe, in fact, the award might finally bring his team some deserved recognition.
"Well, the way I look at it is this,'' Babcock explained, "no one talks about us. They only talk about (second-seeded) San Jose and (fourth-seeded) Anaheim in the West. So, to me, we're just sliding in there unnoticed so we'll do the best we possibly can.''
Now there's an interesting twist. Read between the lines, however, and you'll find a coach playing the gamesmanship card to perfection.
Let's face it -- there aren't many flaws to unravel when discussion turns to the Red Wings. The team finished with more than 100 points for the eighth-straight season, tying an NHL record held by the Montreal Canadiens (1974-1982), and has qualified for the playoffs for the 17th straight season, the longest current streak in pro sports
"It's absolutely phenomenal,'' Babcock said of Detroit's consecutive playoff appearances. "In the hallway leading to our dressing room, you have all the years displayed since the Ilitch family took over (in 1982). There were some tough ones when they first started, but it has been great ever since. I think what's most impressive is the ownership and their passion for success.
"We've got a real good hockey club here, starting with (owners) Mike and Mary Ilitch, down through (General Manager) Kenny Holland and throughout our team with guys like (Nicklas) Lidstrom, (Henrik) Zetterberg, (Pavel) Datsyuk, (Kris) Draper and (Chris) Chelios. To me, the quality leadership here is what allows us to be successful.''
The 44-year-old head coach isn't too shabby either. Babcock this season became the first coach in league history to win 50 or more games in his first three seasons with an NHL team. He also garnered the Presidents' Trophy in his first season in Hockeytown in 2005-06.
Babcock is certainly privy to both ends of the seeding spectrum when it comes to preparing for the postseason grind. Take for instance his inaugural season as a coach in the NHL with the Anaheim Ducks in 2002-03 when his seventh-seeded team defeated No. 2 Detroit, top-seeded Dallas and sixth-seeded Minnesota before dropping a seven-game series to New Jersey in the Stanley Cup Final.
"When you're the higher seed, the other teams have usually been battling like crazy and sometimes you've been drifting along,'' Babcock said. "The great thing for us this year is our games down the stretch have come against teams that are good teams that have played us really well. We were up against teams battling for their playoff lives, so we've been involved in really good games.''
Babcock feels there is no difference between a team finishing first or eighth in the conference.
"You look at the teams in the race and, really, you wouldn't want to face any of them in the playoffs,'' Babcock said.
"I think the line between the best teams and those finishing eighth is very, very little,'' he admitted. "They're all that good. We get prepared to play most every night and have two solid goaltenders (Dominik Hasek, Chris Osgood) who have allowed us to win a lot of close games and be successful.''
Detroit has won 17 one-goal games and 14 two-goal contests this season.
"As a fan, if you're expecting us to shellac the other team, it's not going to happen; it just doesn't work like that in this League today,'' he continued. "Every team is capable of beating the other team because there are so many good players around the League. Some of the teams that are younger and haven't made the playoffs in recent years may have more depth in a lot of ways because they've got more guys in their system.''
Still, Babcock learned a lot about his resilient bunch during a 1-8-2 stretch in February. It was at that juncture when Detroit was beset with several injuries but persevered behind many determined youngsters and their exuberant coach.
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"I think any time you go through tough stretches, it's a real positive thing,'' Babcock said. "The bottom line is, we found out we have a lot of young kids in the minors ready to play in the NHL.
You also find out how good (Brian) Rafalski, Lidstrom and (Niklas) Kronvall are in a hurry. And you find out that if you're going to have a group of defenders that can't move the puck, you better get a whole bunch of 6-foot-4 forwards that can flip it in and forecheck more. Not that we can't forecheck, but we pride ourselves more on getting in on our opponent off the rush. If you just slam it in or rim it around, I think you have to be bigger to forecheck.''
The Red Wings are as motivated as ever to rebound after last season's six-game setback to Anaheim in the Western Conference Finals.
"It's interesting,'' Babcock said. "Prior to a regular-season game against St. Louis in late March, we were in the weight room and I noticed Datsyuk and Zetterberg going crazy. They're getting ready for the playoffs and not for that night's game. Here I am, focusing on that night's game and they're already talking playoffs.''
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer