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Detroit Red Wings celebrate their victory over the Chicago Blackhawks (Paul Sancya/AP)
Detroit Red Wings celebrate their victory over the Chicago Blackhawks (Paul Sancya/AP)

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

Wings look a far better team now than they did in March Add to ...

As their younger players mature, the Red Wings look like a far better team now than they did in March. They haven’t been to a conference final since 2009 – two second-round defeats, plus a first-round loss last year to the Nashville Predators – but they are starting to look like a serious threat again.

“As the year’s gone on, we’ve gotten better,” said Red Wings’ coach Mike Babcock post-game. “We’re got real good leadership ... and a bunch of kids that work hard.

“But let’s be honest, we haven’t done anything yet.”

No, but they’re halfway there, which is something you might not have thought possible with a week to go in the regular season, when the Columbus Blue Jackets were threatening to bump them from the playoff picture altogether.

LA STORY

The defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings made a concerted push to keep the same old gang together this season, and signed everybody back in September so as to preserve as much as possible the chemistry they developed in a magical 16-4 playoff run. Ultimately, injuries obliged them to tweak the line-up just a little during the season – adding Robyn Regehr and Keaton Ellerby on defence in trades, and calling up from the minors two of their top prospects, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. Pearson made his NHL debut in Saturday’s loss to the Sharks, replacing Jordan Nolan in the line-up. Regehr has been the key addition. He plays first-pair minutes, largely alongside Drew Doughty. Ellerby has been mostly a seventh defenceman in the playoffs, but he drew in after Alec Martinez took a couple of those penalties in Game 2 that Sutter hates so much.

But the biggest difference is that last year’s Kings were road warriors, going 10-1 in the Stanley Cup playoffs after being forced to start each series on the road. This year, L.A. has been practically unbeatable of late at the Staples Centre, but already has three losses on the road this year.

After Saturday’s OT defeat, the Kings chartered home right after the game, so they wouldn’t have to stay in San Jose with an extra off day between Games 3 and 4. The Kings met on Sunday, practiced hard on Monday and then returned to San Jose later Monday afternoon. “What were we going to do two days in San Jose?” wondered Sutter. “We would have been bored.”

MISSING IN ACTION

It has been a tough playoff season for some of the NHL’s rich and famous, the players who are supposed to be difference makers at this time of year. For the teams already on the sidelines, Corey Perry of the eliminated Ducks finished 10th on his team in scoring with two assists in seven games, tied with David Steckel and Ben Lovejoy. Alex Ovechkin was ninth on the Caps in scoring, with two assists in seven games. Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise never got it going for Minnesota Wild.

Then there are the ongoing struggles of players such as the Bruins’ Tyler Seguin with just a single assist in nine games. The Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews has three assists in eight games, and trails Shaw and Bryan Bickell on Chicago’s scoring list. The Kings’ top line of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams has just a single goal in three games vs. San Jose, and it came on a 5-on-3 power play attempt. And most disturbingly, Rick Nash and Brad Richards have been dismal for the New York Rangers, Nash with four points in nine games, Richards limited to a single point thus far.

Makes you wonder what kind of paydays a very average free-agent crop is going to get this summer. Will we finally see the end of those dog-and-pony shows that some agencies like to orchestrate? You gotta hope so.

AND FINALLY

I, for one, cannot wait to see Patrick Roy take over as the next Colorado Avalanche coach. I’m not sure how good a coach Roy will necessarily be, but he’ll surely breathe a little fire into a team that has lacked that for years now. It was a point goalie J.S. Giguere made after the Avs fell completely out of the playoff picture last year, with a team that had far more talent than clubs that finished ahead of them in the standings. You wonder what kind of an effect Roy would have on goalie Semyon Varlamov, who cost the Avs a first-round draft choice, and supposedly is good enough to be a starter in the NHL. If Varlamov could ever give the Avs the sort of netminding Sergei Bobrovsky gave the Blue Jackets this season, they will be a threat, sooner or later. Too many good young pieces up front, and Seth Jones coming, to think otherwise.

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