Why this Red Wings squad is deeper, better than last year
BY HELENE ST. JAMES • FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER • April 10, 2008
The Red Wings believe they are prepared in case of emergency. Health is the great, big intangible upon which rests the fate of all NHL playoff teams, which is why it's good to be talented but vital to be deep.
The Wings undertake their annual mission to win the Stanley Cup tonight with Game 1 against Nashville a little banged up but generally fit. They do so with the outside expectations laden on a team that finished with the best record in the regular season, and with the internal memory of how close they came to realizing those expectations a year ago.
It is a better Detroit team that embarks on the playoffs this time, better because of having acquired Brad Stuart at the trade deadline, better because Derek Meech and Jonathan Ericsson and Kyle Quincey are available in case of injuries to the regulars on defense. Better because skilled forwards like Darren Helm, the single-most asked-about Wing at the trade deadline, and Justin Abdelkader have gotten even a tiny bit of NHL experience. Better because Chris Osgood reinvented himself as a top-notch goalie this season, able to step in if anything should happen to starter Dominik Hasek.
"I think we're the deepest team in the playoffs," Osgood said. "Even now we've got Abdelkader and Helm, some young guys that can step in and play and do a very good job for us. Meech and Ericsson played very good for us when they played. That's important because the playoffs can be up to two months long, and everybody is eventually going to get in at some point."
No one ever wants to lower the lifeboats, of course. But the reason the Wings are so confident in the regulars they have also ties greatly into what happened last spring, when Detroit made its way from Calgary to San Jose before being stopped six games into the Western Conference finals against Anaheim, the club that eventually won the championship. That stretch was the first real long-term playoff experience for important players like Dan Cleary, Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula.
"The experience of going to the conference final was unique," Cleary said. "For me, realizing how hard it is, and what it takes -- now it's embedded in my mind. Now I know and it's something I can always reach back for."
Franzen estimated he has improved 7% over last year, which shows this mule of a player may be humble but he is bad at math. Franzen had three goals and four assists in last year's playoffs; this season he became the monster scorer the Wings always knew he could be. Now he's headed into the playoffs vetted by last year's run and strengthened by this season's explosion (27 goals, 11 assists).
"There's nothing like experience come playoff time," general manager Ken Holland said. "Knowing what to expect helps prepare the players to be better playoff performers. I think of our teams in the '90s and the growing pains we had to go through -- you make moves, and you try again and again. You can't have enough experience. We think we are better prepared because of the experience that a number of players have gotten and because we have a number of guys we can put in the lineup who give us some depth."
The acquisition of Stuart, who has missed three weeks with a broken finger but expects to play tonight, was important because he provides a physical presence absent last spring, when the team's other big hitter, Niklas Kronwall, was sidelined by a back injury. Stuart and Kronwall add grit to a team that still, above all, dazzles opponents with its puck-possession style of play.
"We have a few guys that can finish checks and are physical players, but we don't have bundles of them, where you have 10 guys that are playing real aggressive," captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "We're more trying to make plays out there. Being tough to play against is keeping teams to the outside, not giving them any scoring chances, and keeping the shots down, and I think that's one of the reasons why, if you look at our goals-against, it's the best in the league."
When healthy, the Wings field arguably the league's best team. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg laid waste to any questioning of their playoff prowess last year, and both are coming off amazing regular seasons that saw them grow at both ends of the ice.
"You can put them out there against anybody and they play in any and all situations," Dallas Drake said. "Not many guys that are your best players do you put out there at the end of hockey games. They're on the ice the whole game, and that's why they're a tough duo to stop."
While many on the team, like Zetterberg, Franzen, Cleary, Filppula, Kronwall and Stuart, never have won a Cup, the Wings have a veteran core that has been around for at least one of the most recent three in club history. From those comes the best summation of what it takes to win in the playoffs, and the knowledge that the team that wins is, in fact, usually the one that's healthiest.
"To win you need a little bit of everything," Lidstrom said. "You're going to have your bumps and bruises throughout a long playoff run, so you need to have good depth, and I think we have that. But you want to have the best and most players available all the time. Goaltending is important, and team defense, and being able to win on the road. And you need to be a little lucky, too."
Contact HELENE ST. JAMES at 313-222-2295 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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