Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock was rhyming off all the things he liked about Chicago in anticipation of their second-round playoff match-up against the Blackhawks, and the list was a long one.
“Chicago’s a great city,” began Babcock. “They’ve got great players. They’ve got five D who are flat-out great skaters. They’ve got a captain [Jonathan Toews] who’s a real good human being and a great leader. They’ve got lots of skill and good depth. They’re well-organized. The national anthem is fun. Good uniforms.
“They’re got nice restaurants. It’s a good spot. We’ll have a good time. We got a lot of reasons to be excited about playing them.”
On the surface, you wouldn’t necessarily think that, given how the regular season went. The Blackhawks swept the Red Wings in posting an NHL best 36-7-5 record and have a 9-0-1 record overall during the past two seasons. One defeat was especially ugly – a 7-1 loss at the Joe Louis Arena at the end of March, which Babcock dismissed as a travel anomaly, a rested Chicago team catching tired Detroit, returning home at the end of a long road trip.
Fatigue could be a factor again when the teams open their best-of-seven series in Chicago Wednesday night, given that the Red Wings were stretched to the limit by the No. 2 seeded Ducks, before they wrapped it up Sunday night in Anaheim. It meant the Red Wings have zigzagged across the country three times already – and rather than return home from California, they were right to Chicago to prepare for the second round.
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, had a relatively easy time of it against a Minnesota Wild team that lost its starting goaltender, Niklas Backstrom, in the warm-up of the first game and was down to its No. 3, Darcy Kuemper, by the times the series ended in five.
Detroit, by contrast, got a strong series in goal from Jimmy Howard against the Ducks, Howard largely outplaying his Anaheim counterpart, Jonas Hiller, in the final two games, as they rallied from a 3-2 series deficit. But the Red Wings were largely carried by their captain Henrik Zetterberg plus Pavel Datsyuk, two players who upped the level of their respective games when the series came down to crunch time.
Zetterberg was particularly effective when the Red Wings were facing elimination. He scored the overtime winner to force a seventh game and made the two key offensive plays in the series-clinching 3-2 victory.
Windows of championship opportunity are a frequent discussion point around the NHL, in precincts as diverse as Vancouver and San Jose, but with Detroit, they always seem to be open just a crack. The Red Wings are in the playoffs for a 22nd consecutive season, and next year, shift over to the Eastern Conference in an ambitious NHL realignment.
It means, if they ever face the Blackhawks again in a playoff series beyond this year, it’ll have to be in a Stanley Cup final. The two organizations have a long history against each other – this is their 16th all-time postseason meeting – but last played in the playoffs in 2009, when the Red Wings won in five.
Only seven Red Wings, plus the injured Darren Helm, are still around from the team that won the 2008 Stanley Cup, but Zetterberg – playoff MVP that year – is one of them, as is Mikael Samuelsson, who has seen the evolution of Zetterberg’s game over the years.
“I just take the hat off to him,” said Samuelsson. “It’s not like he is super fast or has a super good shot. But he’s a hell of a player, just the way he protects the puck. And his mental willness is huge. How, as a scout, can you see that at a young age? You never know how it’s going to turn out.”
Datsyuk is 34, Zetterberg 32, and there has been some speculation around the Red Wings this year that the former might play out the final year of his contract next season and then finish his career in the KHL. Of course, there was speculation like that around Nicklas Lidstrom through the final years of his career and Detroit kept coaxing him back, until last summer, when he finally decided to retire. At that point, Zetterberg received the “C” and was given the responsibility of helping to carry on the team’s winning tradition.
The Red Wings were touch-and-go just to make the playoffs in the final 10 days, but have been on a roll ever since.
“It’s been a different year for us,” acknowledged Zetterberg, “the way we had to get in at the end of the year and play our way into the postseason and kept it going and won the first series.”
Zetterberg described Chicago as a team “stacked at forward. They’re stacked on the back line. They’ve got a good goalie. It’s going to be a tough series for us, but it’s going to be a fun one … and great for our fans. They’re a good team, playing well. They took care of business early against Minnesota, so it’s going to be a tough one for us, but if we play well and do our things, we have a chance.”