Friday, May 30, 2008
Babcock watches as Wings grow up
PITTSBURGH -- You have to relax, some way, somehow.
You can't relax, no way, no how.
That's the conundrum Mike Babcock and the Red Wings must handle, now that their lead over the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals has been sliced to 2-1, now that they have a little free time before Game 4 Saturday night.
They can't relax on the young Penguins, not a bit. But this has been nearly a two-month grind, and this is where Babcock has changed, evolving into one of the best coaches in the game. He knows when to hammer and when to let up, and whom to hammer and whom to leave alone.
On Thursday, with an extra day off, Babcock was in a humorous mood more than a hammering mood. He was taking his team to a resort outside of Pittsburgh, in lieu of another practice, to get it away from hockey. Mud baths with cucumber slices on the eyes? No one was saying.
But Babcock also had a pointed message for his top players. In the process, he showed why a good relationship between coach and star, especially between Babcock and Henrik Zetterberg, is so important, and why ego rarely is an issue on this team. Power down
Even before the Wings lost to Pittsburgh 3-2, Babcock had been bothered by the work of his top power-play unit -- Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski. He also was upset Zetterberg's group stayed on the ice longer than the standard 35-second shifts Wednesday night, sapping their effectiveness.
The Wings have been terrific in the postseason, with Zetterberg arguably their best player. But in three games against the Penguins, they're two-for-19 on the power play.
So on a day for relaxation, Babcock had a point, and he made it with a smile.
"Our top group is being a little too fine right now," Babcock said. "But they're real proud guys and they're smart guys and they know. Before the game, when we were going through the power play and none of the (video) clips were them, they knew."
The Wings' best skaters -- Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Lidstrom -- may be quiet, but they're not automatons. They lead in unseen, and sometimes unspoken ways, with Zetterberg taking on more and more responsibility.
As the team evolves, the Babcock-Zetterberg relationship naturally grows. When Zetterberg and Datsyuk started playing on the same line a couple years ago, Babcock told them to decide between themselves who wanted to play center and who'd play on the wing. They talked and Zetterberg chose center, although the pair improvises a lot.
For a guy so good at pushing, Babcock isn't bad at pulling back.
"We appreciated that he let us have the choice," said Zetterberg, 27, who leads the Wings with 23 playoff points. "At the same time, he knows what he wants and he knows what buttons to push. Sometimes you get real mad at him but it turns out it's the right decision."
Would that power-play videotape, the one that highlighted exclusively the second unit -- manned by forwards Johan Franzen, Dan Cleary and Jiri Hudler -- be one of those push-able buttons?
"Maybe," Zetterberg said, laughing. "He knows how to get me mad. It doesn't happen that often, but I think I play better when I'm a little bit feisty." On-ice leadership
The Wings don't operate an aristocracy, with stars on one level and role players below. Babcock has learned to adjust his sometimes-overbearing ways, figuring out how to coach experienced stars, because it's different than the "greasy" hockey he coined in Anaheim.
But he doesn't coddle. And the results are seen in the improvement of his best players, and in the incredible blossoming of Zetterberg and Datsyuk.
"On some teams, if a coach said that a lot of shifts were too long, they'd take it as a shot," Babcock said. "These guys don't. They know it before you even tell 'em. I'm the coach so I'm in charge, but they're elite, elite players that have an opinion. They know they're driving the bus. They lead, and they do it without ego."
It's the hidden trait that makes the Wings go. Teammates rave about the work ethic of Zetterberg and Datsyuk, so it wasn't a surprise when the duo cranked it up physically in the postseason.
They're doing more and more, and at times, they try to do too much. Earlier in the season, when Zetterberg and others were extending their shifts, Babcock cooked up a quick remedy.
At the end of a practice in Minnesota, he ordered them to skate backward for the length of their too-long shifts (about a minute), and do it seven or eight times.
"He told us, 'You can't play like this,' and we pretty much agreed," Zetterberg said. "When you want to do a little too much, that's what happens. Of course I take some of the blame for the loss (to the Penguins). I have to take care of it for the next game."
The Wings aren't beating themselves up over one loss. They know they played well for stretches. But Sidney Crosby and the Penguins have their first whiffs of confidence and Game 4 will be tough again.
It's all about relaxing, without relaxing, if you know what I mean. The Wings get it. Zetterberg said they packed the soccer balls for the bus trip to the undisclosed resort, for spirited bouts of "two-touch." That's the game in which players stand in a circle, kicking around a soccer ball, with participants dropping out as they miss.
It's a good way to relax. Almost everyone on the team plays and everyone is treated equal. Hmm. That also happens to be a good way to run a team.
You can reach Bob Wojnowski at email@example.com