Archive for Hockey

The Red Wings captain of today was wearing a suit when he should have been wearing a uniform.

When the Red Wings honored defenseman Nick Lidstrom last winter by retiring his no. 5 jersey, the evening was jarred by the sight of two current Red Wings and former Lidstrom teammates, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, wearing Armani instead of Reebok.

Both were battling injuries. Zetterberg’s was a back ailment, and watching him move around gingerly that night was less-than-inspiring.

The Red Wings captain, Lidstrom’s successor in that role, returned in time for the playoffs but he wasn’t anywhere near 100 percent.

Hockey players are the Frankenstein monsters of athletes. They are sewn together and zipped up. I think if you look closely, some of them have bolts coming out of their necks.

They’ll play on one leg and seeing out of one eye. Teeth are optional, as are all internal organs other than the heart.

But as tough as they are, hockey players aren’t immune to two things: groin injuries and bad backs. Those maladies are the hockey player’s Kryptonite.

Just ask the guy in the broadcast booth who has described Zetterberg’s on-ice wizardry ever since Hank broke into the league in 2002.

Mickey Redmond was 28 years old when his back popped. A two-time 50-goal scorer, Redmond’s hands never left him. His shot never vanished. But his back went out and that was pretty much it for him as a hockey player. His last NHL game played was in January, 1976.

More than three years later, at age 31, Redmond tried to give it another shot on the ice but only lasted a few days in training camp in 1979 before retiring for good. The bad back quickly re-flared.

So there was some understandable breath holding when Zetterberg’s back, which has given him problems off-and-on for several years now, ached him yet again last season. Zetterberg’s age (33 at the time) only added to the angst.

Seeing Z waddle around during the Lidstrom ceremony didn’t help the psyche of a fan base that was rooting for its team to make the playoffs for a 23rd consecutive season.

Fast forward to this season. The captain’s back is repaired and he’s, well, back.

Boy, is he ever back.

Zetterberg is 34 now but he is flitting around the ice like he’s 24. Usually he is the Red Wings’ best player on any given night. He skates freely, briskly and with purpose. Sometimes you swear there are two no. 40s on the ice at once.

All Zetterberg has been doing is scoring goals, assisting on others, playing defense on both ends of the ice and leading by example. You know, kind of like what Z’s predecessors at captain—Steve Yzerman and Lidstrom—did all their careers.

On October 15, Zetterberg said he played a stinker of a game against Boston at Joe Louis Arena. He was quick to call himself out. The Red Wings lost in a shootout that night to the Bruins.

Zetterberg then took out his anger on the poor Toronto Maple Leafs.

In a rare home-and-home series with an Original Six club the weekend of October 17 and 18, Zetterberg assisted on all four Red Wings goals on Friday night in a 4-1 victory. The next night, he scored the game’s only goal, in overtime. The following game, in Montreal, Zetterberg scored Detroit’s only goal in a 2-1 loss.

That goal in Montreal meant that Henrik Zetterberg had a hand in the Red Wings’ six most recent goals.

The schedule moved on and Zetterberg moved on with it, his back healthy and leaving him pain-free.

Two nights after Montreal, the big, bad Pittsburgh Penguins came to town and with less than three minutes remaining, the Red Wings trailed 3-1 and the arena was emptying.

Enter Zetterberg. Again.

He took a pass near the Penguins blue line and split the defense like a high-flying youngster. Before Pens goalie Thomas Greiss, making his first start of the season, knew what hit him, Zetterberg had fired a shot over the goalie’s left shoulder to make the score 3-2.

Exactly two minutes later, at 19:21, Zetterberg assisted on Niklas Kronwall’s tying goal.

In overtime, with less than a minute remaining, Zetterberg was hard on the forecheck behind the Penguins net and got his stick on an attempted clearing pass. The puck squirted out to Justin Abdelkader, who deposited it past Greiss to cap the amazing comeback, which gave the Red Wings two of the most unlikeliest points they will earn all season.

When the snow settled, the three points Zetterberg earned against the Penguins gave him a hand in nine of the last 10 Red Wings goals.

The streak started immediately after the captain indicted himself for his play against Boston.

Watching the man they call Hank or Z—because Henrik and Zetterberg take too long to say—play this season is like watching a youthful rookie skating on fresh legs. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Zetterberg was one of those Grand Rapids Griffins called up last year.

Lately, coach Mike Babcock has paired Zetterberg with Pavel Datsyuk on the same line, now that Datsyuk is back in the lineup, healed from his shoulder injury.

To say that it’s pleasing to finally see Z and Pavs together again is an understatement. Last season, injuries kept the two off the ice far too often. Or when one was healthy, the other wasn’t.

Zetterberg turned 34 a few weeks ago. Last season he looked like an old 33, with his bad back. This year he looks like a young 34, mainly because his back doesn’t make him feel 54.

He captains a team that is younger and less experienced than any roster Yzerman or Lidstrom led, which makes Zetterberg’s savvy and skill on the ice all the more appreciated.

And heaven help the league the next time Z thinks he’s had a bad game.

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Aug
17

Holland’s Extension Deserved, But There Is Work to Do

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It was April 2007 and the Red Wings were approaching an anniversary of sorts. And the occasion was even lost on the owner.

A bunch of us media types were summoned to Joe Louis Arena on the eve of that year’s playoff run. The reason for the herding was to unveil the new Gordie Howe statue in one of the concourses.

As the tarp was pulled off the bronze replica of Howe in action, I spotted owner Mike Ilitch, standing off to the side, all by his lonesome.

Some brief remarks were made about the new Howe piece, and when the ceremony was over I sidled up to the man his employees affectionately call Mr. I.

You know you’re coming up on an anniversary,” I said.

Ilitch seemed unaware.

It’s been 25 years with the same management group just about,” I said.

His mouth curled into a grin and he chuckled.

Yeah, I guess you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that.”

I said a quarter century was a long time, and Ilitch agreed.

In the summer of 1982, shortly after purchasing the Red Wings from the Norris family, Ilitch made his first-ever hockey hire.

The announcement made little fanfare.

Ilitch introduced a pudgy, squeaky-voiced hockey man named Jimmy Devellano as his new general manager. All we knew about Devellano was that he had been a hockey rink rat who had something to do with the New York Islanders’ three consecutive (at the time) Stanley Cups.

Devellano made a promise at his first press conference.

As long as Jimmy Devellano is the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, we will NOT trade a draft choice.”

Devellano made good on his promise.

So it was in April 2007 that Devellano, 25 years after being poached from the Islanders, was still employed as a Red Wings executive—a fact lost on the man who hired him until I brought it up.

Devellano is still with the Red Wings, and the lineage from Jimmy D isn’t exactly chopped liver.

It was Devellano—who’d risen to the rank of Vice President—who brought in Scotty Bowman as coach in 1993, and it was Devellano who encouraged Ilitch to add GM to Scotty’s title one year later.

Bowman, of course, is a Hockey Hall of Famer and was one already, essentially, when the Red Wings came calling.

In 1997, when Bowman abdicated GM duties after winning the Stanley Cup, Devellano pressed for the promotion of scouting director Ken Holland to general manager.

Seventeen years later, Holland is still GM and will be for the next four years, at least.

Last week, the Red Wings announced that Ilitch had given Holland a contract extension that goes through the 2017-18 season. That would push Holland past the 20-year mark as Red Wings GM.

But it’s not like Holland hasn’t lost any luster.

The Red Wings haven’t been past the second round of the playoffs since 2009, when they lost in the Cup Finals to Pittsburgh. The natives are getting a little restless. And a lot of their vitriol has been directed at the man who is in charge of putting the roster together—Ken Holland.

The recent high round draft choices have been sporadic in their success. Holland has whiffed on the higher profile free agents for the past three years—not that free agency is a sure ticket to the brass ring, but there you are. There haven’t really been any major trades of any import for several years. And the playoff runs have been ending in late-April or early-May, which isn’t very Red Wings-like.

Yet the Red Wings keep making the playoffs, which in of itself is impressive considering the rash of injuries and underachievement of veterans, both of which have forced Grand Rapids Griffins to become Detroit Red Wings ahead of schedule.

Like it or not, Holland has the full support of the Ilitch family as he tries to return the Red Wings to elite status.

Sometimes change for change’s sake is a good thing in professional sports, which is the ultimate “What have you done for me lately?” business. Though it’s often done in panic or from overreaction, change by itself can reverse a franchise’s fortunes.

It says here that it has yet to be proven that a changing of the guard at Joe Louis Arena—whether at GM or at coach, where Mike Babcock has still yet to sign a contract extension—would put the Red Wings in a better stead than where they are now.

Holland took over on the heels of a Stanley Cup in 1997, which very few GMs get a chance to do. His critics will tell you that because of the team’s already elite status and the deep wallet of Ilitch, lots of hockey men could have been successful under those circumstances.

Fair enough.

But the Red Wings haven’t bottomed out, a fate which has befallen innumerable professional sports franchises, including iconic ones like the Celtics and Lakers in basketball and the Cowboys and Raiders in football.

The Red Wings keep making the playoffs and lo and behold, the Griffins-turned-Red Wings were a huge part of making the post-season last spring.

Those were mostly players that Holland and his crack staff of scouts found, beating the frozen bushes for talent.

It’s not time for an interruption to the long executive lineage that Jimmy Devellano started in 1982. Holland has earned the chance to get the Red Wings back into the Stanley Cup conversation in something more than a passing way.

Change can be a good thing, but there is also something to be said for stability, familiarity and loyalty, which have been cornerstones of the Red Wings’ success since 1991, when they started their playoff streak that continues today.

Holland has work to do, however. The contract extension is nice, but that’s done. It’s sleeve rolling up time now.

There’s nothing that logically says he is not up to the task.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has won a Stanley Cup, lost two others in the Finals in seven games, has won two Olympic Gold Medals and a World Juniors Championship. His Red Wings teams have never missed the playoffs in the nine years he’s coached in Hockeytown.

So who can blame him for puffing out his chest a little bit?

After the Red Wings struck out in free agency when all the high profile guys got signed by other teams on or around July 1, hockey fans in Detroit demanded to know why.

What free agent worth his salt rejects the Red Wings?

How can you say no to the winged wheel? How can you look at the tradition, the Cups won, the refusal to miss the playoffs since 1990 and say, “Naah, that’s OK. I’m good.”

According to the Wings fans in Detroit, Hockeytown—as they like to call their city—is the NHL’s Valhalla.

You’d think that once a new signee’s plane lands on the tarmac at Metro Airport, the first thing he does when his feet hit the ground is kneel and kiss Mike Ilitch’s pinky ring.

Clearly, that’s not the case anymore, in this day of salary caps and that thorny word, parity.

So the Red Wings whiffed on the big names that hit the market at the top of the month—guys like Dan Boyle, Radim Vrbata, Mike Cammalleri, Mark Fayne et al—and Hockeytown was all aflutter.

The cross-eyes focused on Babcock.

He’s too tough. No one wants to play for him who is coming from elsewhere. It is Babcock and Babcock alone who is causing the major free agents to say “Thanks but no thanks.”

It’s all hogwash but finally the coach himself had enough.

“They way I look at it here, if you don’t want to be coached, don’t come here.”

The words are Babcock’s, and they were spoken on the radio earlier in the week.

Those words, and others Babcock said while talking to “Ryan and Rico” onDetroit Sports 105.1, paint an image of a man who’s heard the bluster and decided to tell his side of the story.

“If you want to be pushed to be the best that you can be, that’s what we do here. You know what? The proof is in the pudding,” Babcock said.

Then this.

“If (the Wings) are concerned about (free agents not liking him), then I should coach somewhere else.”

Give ‘em hell, Mike.

Babcock is not the reason free agents nixed Detroit when the market opened on July 1.

Why wouldn’t a guy want to play for a proven winner?

It recalls a line about the legendary Scotty Bowman, spoken by one of his players on the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s.

“For 364 days of the year you can’t stand him, and on the 365th, you hoist the Stanley Cup.”

I’ll go one step further than Babcock.

If a player is saying no to the Red Wings because he doesn’t want to be pushed, then that’s not the player for the Red Wings.

There were many underlying factors affecting the decisions of this summer’s free agent class. Some had ties to the organizations with which they signed. Some were attracted to the bright lights and big city.

It’s a new game these days, anyway.

In the halcyon days, before salary caps, successful NHL teams more readily used free agency to build their core. Homegrown kids and trades were used to complement.

Today the league’s model is more like the one that’s been used by the NFL since that grand old football league started in the 1920s; i.e. use the draft to build a core and free agency to complement.

The most recent Stanley Cup winners—Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston—all have rosters liberally sprinkled with homegrown players. They are teams that have been largely built through the draft. Free agents have been signed, but not as the main focus.

The Red Wings are moving along with the times.

Partly out of necessity due to injuries and underperformance from veterans, the kids from Grand Rapids stepped up last season and are threatening to form a new core of Red Wings hockey.

Signing big name free agents should no longer be the preferable way of staying in Cup contention. The Red Wings are doing it the right way—the way that’s been proven to work by the Blackhawks, Kings and Bruins.

Sometimes the best free agent signings are the ones you don’t make.

Two summers ago, Hockeytown was in a depression over the Red Wings’ failure to secure the services of free agent center Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who were considered the best catches of the Class of 2012.

Both signed with the Minnesota Wild, and their addition was supposed to vault the Wild into the conversation as a serious Cup contender.

In the two seasons since adding Parise and Suter, the Wild have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Just like the Red Wings.

The draft is the way to go in the NHL. Frankly, the Red Wings have known that all along. They have been experts at finding superstars buried in the lower rounds.

But those draft choices weren’t the focal points. The big splash was made in free agency back in the day. Anything the Red Wings got from drafted players was a bonus. That, or the youngsters were used as bargaining chips at the trade deadline.

Another thing: are the Red Wings one high profile free agent away from winning the Stanley Cup? Unless that guy is a proven, sniper-like scorer—and there weren’t any of those on the market this summer—then the answer is a resounding no.

The Dan Cleary signing aside, the team seems to be transitioning smoothly from a veteran-laden group to a younger, faster, more energized squad.

Mike Babcock is the least of the Red Wings’ worries.

The coach is signed only through next season, but he keeps telling us not to read anything into that. And he has another message for those who suggest that he runs too tight of a ship for free agents’ liking.

“We just have the hard meetings. We get it out front. Does it piss people off once in a while? Absolutely. But it also leads to behavioral changes and getting things better. So you know what, I’m not apologizing for that stuff at all. I like to be treated honest.”

The Red Wings’ chances to win the Stanley Cup are no better and no worse after Free Agent Frenzy, 2014. And Mike Babcock is not the reason free agents signed elsewhere.

Honest.

 

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Jul
04

Torres’ Big Hat is the Jacques Plante Mask of Today

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Jacques Plante had had enough.

Plante, goalie for the Montreal Canadiens, had taken the last puck off his unprotected face in an NHL game.

It was November 1, 1959.

Earlier in the season, Plante—who was the most innovative goalie in league history—had been experimenting with a crude form of a hard fiberglass face mask in practice. At the time, every goalie in the six-team NHL played without any facial protection. It was like racing cars without a seat belt, but there you have it.

During team practices, Montreal coach Toe Blake begrudgingly allowed Plante to wear the mask, which was a creepy-looking, haunting thing with a mouth hole that resembled the “Scream” masks of today.

But Blake forbade Plante to wear the mask in an actual game, fearing that the protection would cut down on his goalie’s span of vision.

Finally, coach and goalie had a showdown. It came during the Canadiens’ tilt with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Plante suffered a broken nose when New York’s Andy Bathgate, who had one of the hardest shots in the league, blasted a puck off Plante’s bare face.

The six-team NHL employed six goalies in those days. There were no backups. Plante knew that, and he leveraged that fact to his advantage.

As he was getting stitched up to return to the game, Plante told Blake that he was going to wear the mask. The coach disagreed. Plante said that if he wasn’t allowed to wear the mask, he wasn’t getting back onto the ice. Blake seethed but he relented in the face of Plante’s hockey blackmail.

What happened next reminds me of what is happening to San Diego Padres pitcher Alex Torres these days.

Torres is getting grief for donning MLB’s new protective hat for pitchers. The bulky head gear is designed to cushion the blow in case a pitcher takes a line drive off the noggin. In some cases, the hat could be a life saver.

But safety took a back seat to mocking, as the sight of Torres in the oversized hat—and granted, it takes some getting used to—spawned a furor on social media and even in the broadcast booth.

They were laughing at Alex Torres and his big hat, heartily so.

Some have even questioned Torres’ manliness.

This is not unlike what Plante faced as he returned to the ice at the Garden that November night in 1959, wearing his goofy-looking mask.

Plante was derided by the fans, who hooted and hollered at him as he took his place in the goal crease. The players weren’t exactly supportive, either.

As in Torres’ case, Plante’s courage was called into question.

No goalie wore a face mask!

But Plante did a lot of things that no goalie prior to him had done.

Plante was the first netminder to confidently handle the puck outside of the crease with his stick. He was the first to shout instructions to his defenseman. Plante is also credited with being the first goalie to raise his arm, signaling his teammates that icing was being called. He was the Thomas Edison of hockey.

Of all of these innovations, the goalie mask by far is Plante’s legacy.

Plante didn’t care what the fans thought of the mask. He didn’t care what his coaches, teammates and the other players in the league thought. The only thing Plante cared about was his own well-being.

As it should have been.

Coach Blake told Plante he could wear the mask until the broken nose’s cut healed.

But Plante and his mask didn’t lose. The Canadiens beat the Rangers, 3-1, on November 1, 1959 and what followed was a 12-game unbeaten streak, all coming with Plante’s face protected.

One night, against Detroit, Blake ordered the mask off and the Canadiens lost. The next night, the mask was back on Plante’s face and Montreal won.

Not that hockey people are superstitious or anything.

Like Plante was with his mask in 1959, Alex Torres is steadfast in his intent on continuing to wear the oversized baseball hat.

While with Tampa Bay a year ago June, Torres was summoned into the game after teammate Alex Cobb was drilled in the skull by a liner off the bat of Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer.

The incident shook the lefty Torres to his core.

“When I came into the game, (Cobb) was already on his way to the hospital,” Torres told FoxSports.com. “That was a really tough moment, after the pitching coach [Jim Hickey] said I was going to pitch after that happened.

“I was really shaking. My legs were shaking. It’s not easy to take that off of your mind, especially when you’re there. It was a really bad moment. A really bad situation.

“I don’t want to spend three or four months on the disabled list, or to not be able to play baseball again.”

Makes sense to me.

Plante’s mask idea didn’t catch on right away. After he debuted the mask in 1959, goalies continued to go bare-faced for almost a decade before the protective mask became a league staple.

Today, if a goalie dared to play without a mask (it’s against league rules anyway) he’d be mocked just as much as Alex Torres is being today for wearing the protective baseball hat.

Torres believes that the big hat will eventually be accepted.

“In the future, you’re going to see a lot more pitchers in the big leagues wearing it,” Torres was quoted on MLB.com recently.

Granted, Torres’ big hat isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing thing a baseball player can wear.

And Jacques Plante’s original mask was, by today’s standards, rather hideous.

Yet today the goalie mask reflects the wearer’s personality and creativity. The paint jobs on them are amazing in their detail and in their flair.

It could be presumed that MLB’s protective hat for pitchers (or anyone else who wants to wear it) will evolve. It might not look, five years from now, like it does now on Torres’ head.

This isn’t a fashion statement, anyhow.

“I don’t want to wait for someone to hit a line drive right to my head before I start wearing it,” Torres says of his big hat. “I don’t want to lose two or three months because I got a concussion. Why not wear it if I have it right now?”

Good question.

In the great press box in the sky, Jacques Plante is grinning broadly.

Categories : Baseball, Hockey
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Mike Babcock looks like a hockey coach. He couldn’t be anything else.

He played the game, as all coaches have, and his face tells the story—etched with scars, looking like corduroy. There are crevices from cheek to chin deeper than Ayn Rand.

The jaw is set, the eyes steely behind the bench. Why do all hockey coaches look like they’re on a stakeout?

Babcock talks with a nervous tick, like he’s in a hurry, his voice drenched in Canada. Just hearing him speak, you know his life has been filled with 5:00 a.m. practices, mucking it up in the corners and he might have been born toting an equipment bag.

Babcock is in his ninth year coaching the Red Wings and perhaps no season has been more grinding than this one.

He’s coaching kids, and he probably thought he was done with that when he left juniors for the professional ranks over a decade ago.

He has a captain with a trick back who isn’t playing. He has been saddled with underachieving veterans. He has a world class puck magician who missed almost every game after the Olympic break.

His goaltender took more than half the season to find his mojo. Players have been dropping like flies due to injury all year. He’s been relying more on AHL players than NHLers.

But Babcock got the Red Wings into the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive year as a franchise, continuing the streak started by Bryan Murray in 1991 and continued by Scotty Bowman and Dave Lewis. In the process, Babcock last month passed Jack Adams for most coaching wins in franchise history.

Yet he probably won’t win coach of the year honors, which is an award ironically named after Adams.

There is more irony here, of the bitter variety, because those who vote on coach of the year are typically enamored with those who make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what.

Babcock may not have started with you-know-what, but he made chicken salad out of some oddball ingredients, and it’s a storyline the voters ought to eat up.

But because Babcock has won everywhere he’s coached—juniors, the NHL, the Olympics—and with some terrific talent, even a stressful, turbulent year such as the 2013-14 season probably won’t be enough to give a deserving guy his due.

It’s twisted logic, and it happens in all team sports.

The talented teams must win despite the coach, because the coaches of those talented teams rarely are recognized as being the best at their craft in any given year.

So coach of the year became reserved for the turnaround story or the winning against all odds situations.

Babcock qualifies.

The Red Wings coach succeeded in both of the aforementioned examples—a turnaround and winning against all odds.

In late-November, a certain bottom feeding blogger suggested that the Red Wings were old, decrepit and that their best years had passed. He pounded away on his keyboard, railing against what the Red Wings had become—rudder-less, a step behind and an also-ran.

That bottom feeding blogger was I.

The words scream out from the computer monitor as I read them from my Red Wings blog, the Winged Wheeler. As I have opined before, it is a fact that bloggers don’t write with invisible ink, as much as they would like to.

The Red Wings continued to wobble through the holidays, but began finding themselves in January. It wasn’t a coincidence that the resurgence started when the kids from Grand Rapids started getting ice time and contributing.

The Olympics break seemed to be unwelcome, because the Red Wings were playing some good hockey, finally. Goalie Jimmy Howard replaced the doppelganger that was pretending to be him earlier in the season.

Yet when the Olympics ended, and the NHL resumed its schedule, Babcock’s bunch hadn’t cooled off. They made a charge toward the playoffs, as one of those seeds that barely get in—the kind of team the Red Wings were used to playing against in the playoffs as opposed to actually being.

So that was your turnaround.

You want some winning against all odds stuff?

How about making the push to the playoffs with a motley crew of young, mid-season call-ups; a player who, because of injuries was asked to be a leader while playing his first year in Detroit after 17 seasons elsewhere; and with no captain and no world-class sidekick, among others, all lost to various bumps, bruises and pulls?

All this, and I would bet you that the voters won’t make Mike Babcock the Jack Adams Award winner.

That’s OK.

Babcock, with apologies to the song, has looked at love from both sides now. And still, somehow…

When Babcock arrived in Detroit in 2005, he was just two years removed from leading the marginally talented Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Red Wings were anything but marginally talented.

Babcock’s appearance in the 2003 Cup Finals with Anaheim was stunning. In Detroit, it was expected to happen every spring.

So that was one side.

The other side is happening right now, guiding a banged up team whose roster is liberally sprinkled with kids—a team that has to scratch and claw every night. A team with speed—and Babcock has never really coached a lot of speed in Detroit. You don’t have to be fast when the other team never has the puck.

And still, somehow, the Red Wings are back in the playoffs—and leading the Boston Bruins, 1-0, in their first round series.

I marveled at Scotty Bowman, because Scotty won in different decades, his teams playing different styles, and in multiple cities. He started coaching in the 1960s and stopped in the 2000s, winning nine Stanley Cups along the way.

Babcock isn’t Bowman, but this year proved that the Red Wings are being coached by someone who doesn’t have to have every chip fall his way in order to win.

Jack Adams Award or not, this is Mike Babcock’s finest hour in coaching.

Earlier in the week, Babcock spoke of his team’s chances in the playoffs against the big, bad Bruins.

“I like us,” Babcock said in conclusion.

He ought to. His team is being coached by Mike Babcock, after all.

 

Categories : Hockey, Out of Bounds, sports
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So the Red Wings made the playoffs this year. So what?

Isn’t that what they do every year?

It’s spring, and the Red Wings will be playing hockey while the Tigers play baseball. What’s the big deal?

The Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and I may as well have just told you that caffeine is in coffee and GM is in trouble.

The Red Wings are the longest-running post-season show going in professional sports. They are “The Mousetrap” of hockey.

The Red Wings have been doing this playoff thing for 23 seasons in a row. They are the team that has its table by the window, reserved, while other post-season patrons have come and gone.

For all we know, the NHL might not even hold the playoffs if the Red Wings aren’t there to participate in them.

Our daughter turns 21 on Monday and her parents hadn’t even met the last time Detroit didn’t have an entry in the Stanley Cup tournament. And now here is our daughter, who is going to be old enough to legally tip a drink to celebrate the first playoff puck drop next week.

The Red Wings’ 23-year run in the playoffs has outlasted marriages and even the second marriages of those divorced in between. It’s seen four presidents, gobs of Congressmen and dozens of political scandals. It started when Dennis Rodman was normal.

So this is what they do, these Red Wings. They play hockey when the lawn mowers are whirring, the grills are smoking and the trees are blossoming. We start watching them with sweats and fuzzy slippers on and by the time they’re through, we’ve switched to shorts and flip-flops.

The Red Wings are in the playoffs. So what else is new?

Well, there’s this. The Red Wings made their playoff push down the stretch without anyone named Zetterberg and, mostly, without anyone named Datsyuk.

The Red Wings are in the playoffs with a cache of rookies, a few reliable vets and an old man who spent 17 years somewhere else. It seems like everyone on the roster is either 22 or 40.

There’s Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan and Gustav Nyquist, which isn’t exactly a Who’s Who of Red Wings lore. Heck, they’re really not even a Who’s Who of last year’s Red Wings.

There’s the old man, Daniel Alfredsson, who is 41 years old and without a Stanley Cup—hockey’s Ernie Banks, though Alfredsson, at least, has seen his share of playoff hockey (16  of his 18 NHL years, to be precise).

But once the puck drops next week to kick off the team’s annual kick at the can, it will only matter that the boys in the blood red sweaters with the winged wheel on their chest are present and accounted for. It won’t matter what the names are on the back of the jerseys.

These are the Red Wings. They have a mystique, like the Raiders had in the NFL or the Yankees have in MLB or the Celtics have in the NBA—all teams whose uniforms never change, nor their marketability.

Don’t for a moment think that the NHL isn’t happy to have the Red Wings along for yet another post-season ride. Hockey fans may tire of seeing Detroit as a playoff team, but the league never will.

The Red Wings are money. Their North American-wide fan base travels well with them, and that will probably be even more so now that the Red Wings are in the Eastern Conference and won’t be starting any playoff series more than 700 miles away from Detroit.

This will be old school playoff hockey, even if the Red Wings may not even face an Original Six team in any round. It’s old school because this will be like hockey in the old days, when there wasn’t a team west of Chicago and all the traveling was done by train.

The Red Wings won’t be taking any trains to Pittsburgh or Boston—their two possible first round opponents—but neither will any playoff game start after 7:30 p.m. No more cross country treks to Los Angeles or San Jose or Anaheim.

Over the past 23 seasons, the Stanley Cup playoff formats have changed, the divisions have changed names and teams, the Red Wings have even switched conferences, have played for four different coaches and through it all, one thing has remained constant.

Springtime hockey in the Motor City.

The Red Wings have accomplished this 23-year post-season streak in a time unlike the Original Six days, when 67% of the teams made the playoffs just by showing up each night. In fact, unless you were the Rangers or the Bruins, you were in the playoffs in the 1950s and much of the ‘60s.

This current streak has been kept alive in a time where just 16 of 30 teams qualify, or barely 53% of the league.

Look at three of the four teams the Red Wings defeated in the Finals in their Stanley Cup championships starting in 1997.

The Philadelphia Flyers, the ’97 victims, barely made the playoffs in 1998 and were dismissed in five games in the first round.

The Washington Capitals, who lost to the Red Wings in the ’98 Finals, finished 14 games below .500 the next year and out of the playoffs.

The Carolina Hurricanes, the 2002 Finals participants, nosedived to 21 games below .500 and were the worst team in the Eastern Conference in 2002-03.

Only the 2009 Penguins, who lost to the Red Wings in the ’08 Finals, rebounded—and they won the Cup.

So it’s not like making it all the way to the Cup Finals guarantees success, even just one year hence.

But the Red Wings have suffered Finals losses, first-round knockouts, Conference Finals disappointments and have won four Cups during this 23-year streak—yet no playoff result of the previous spring has managed to have anything to do with keeping Detroit out of the post-season party the following season.

The Red Wings are in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Again.

And where is Dennis Rodman these days?

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They say defense wins championships, but last I checked, nobody won the Stanley Cup by tossing shutouts every game. You still have to have pucksters who can bury a goal now and again.

Or in Gustav Nyquist’s case, again and again and again.

Nyquist is a typical Red Wings forward: skilled, Swedish and unearthed. Somehow 120 players were selected ahead of Nyquist, who went to the Red Wings as the 121st choice in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

The 24-year-old Nyquist is yet another find of Red Wings’ European Scouting Director Hakan Andersson, a former fishing tour guide who clearly still knows how to catch them.

The Red Wings’ roster is filled with guys whose NHL success belies where they were selected in their respective drafts.

Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen, to name just three, are stars who you would think were first round picks. After all, what scout worth his travelogue could have missed on these guys, eh?

But Zetterberg, the Red Wings’ Swedish captain, was a seventh round selection in 1999. The Russian Datsyuk was taken in the sixth round in 1998. And Franzen, another Swede, was a third round pick in 2004.

Now here comes Nyquist, who’s popping in goals like the opposing goalies are pylons, drafted by the Red Wings only after 120 players—six teams’ worth of nightly skaters—ahead of him were snatched up.

The Red Wings don’t draft players, they pan for them.

The name of the game is to score more than the opposition, and by that standard, Nyquist is the quintessential NHL player, because pretty much every puck he shoots these days finds the back of the net.

Nyquist didn’t join the Red Wings until November 21, from Grand Rapids of the AHL. In his first game this season, he scored twice. It seemed like a harbinger, because of Nyquist’s heroics in the 2013 playoffs, which included a game-winner in overtime in Anaheim in the first round.

But after that two-goal debut in November, Nyquist’s scoring stick fell asleep, and on January 18, he had just five goals.

In 29 games since January 18, Nyquist has 23 goals.

That’s Crosby and Ovechkin-ish.

With Zetterberg and Datsyuk felled by injuries for much of the 2014 portion of the season schedule, it’s been Nyquist to the rescue. When he scores a goal, the Red Wings are 16-6.

It seems as if every Nyquist goal has some sort of importance attached to it. He’s either giving the Red Wings the lead, tying the game, or winning the game.

Nyquist is a Bruce Martyn kind of player: He shoots, he scoooooores!

The brilliance of Nyquist is that he scores from everywhere on the ice, and from any position—skating, falling, sliding, what have you. All that’s left is for him to beat a goalie from the third row of the stands—and that might be coming.

If you miss a Red Wings game on any given night, you might want to just flip on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” because one of Nyquist’s goals is likely going to end up there as an evening highlight of the most pretty.

So much have Nyquist’s exploits in 2014 been talked about around the league, that some NHL observers have suggested that Nyquist should garner some Hart Trophy (MVP) consideration. Now, that’s likely Sidney Crosby’s award to lose, but to even be mentioned is something else, given Nyquist’s paltry five goals in mid-January.

Part of Nyquist’s hockey genius lies in his speed. Even Franzen, Mr. Streaky himself, marvels at his fellow Swede.

“He’s faster with the puck than without it, and that’s pretty uncommon,” Franzen told the Detroit Free Press after Friday night’s 3-2 win over Buffalo—a game in which Nyquist, strangely enough, didn’t score.

But this goal scoring stuff isn’t unique to Nyquist’s NHL career. Everywhere he’s played, he’s been a goalie’s nightmare.

Nyquist has been beating goaltenders like mules since he was 16 years old and scoring nine goals in just 14 games playing for the Malmo Redhawks in a Swedish under-18 league.

After being drafted by the Red Wings, Nyquist went to the University of Maine and in three seasons he scored 50 goals in 113 games.

Then it was time to turn pro, and in two seasons in Grand Rapids, Nyquist deposited 45 goals past AHL goalies.

Nyquist first endeared himself to Red Wings fans when he won Game 2 of the Anaheim series last spring in overtime, a huge tally that tied that series, 1-1. The Red Wings went on to win the series in seven games.

But so prolific is Nyquist this season, that his shooting percentage (goals divided by shots on goal), is 19.9%, which is more than twice the league average. The Red Wings as a team have a shooting percentage of 8.8%.

That means, basically, that Nyquist scores a goal for every five shots he takes. That’s some deadly stuff.

Apparently not content with scoring goals in every way imaginable, Nyquist himself is thinking of different ways to score.

“You look at Pav (Datsyuk) and Z (Zetterberg), they have two guys hanging on their backs and they’re still so strong on the puck,” Nyquist told the Free Press. “That’s something I can learn from.”

I’m sure opposing goalies are just thrilled to hear that. The guy who has 23 goals in his past 28 games wants to start scoring with guys hanging on his back.

Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the only way you can stop Nyquist from scoring in 2014—so far.

So the next time you see two defenders draped over a player, and all you can see of that player is the puck leaving his stick and eluding the goalie, you’ll know who that player is.

No. 14 in red and white.

 

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Jack Adams looked like a lot of things, but a hockey coach wasn’t necessarily one of them.

He was a rotund man with a bulbous nose, a wearer of wire-rimmed glasses. He was one of those haggard-looking men who could never have been young. He could have been a heavy in a gangster film.

If Adams put skates on, he surely could never have seen them past his jelly belly.

Adams ran the Red Wings from behind the bench and behind his desk. He was coach from 1927-1947 and general manager from 1927-63. He presided over the glory days of the 1950s, when the Red Wings were virtually perennial league champions and more than occasional Stanley Cup winners.

The Red Wings’ minor league affiliate in the ‘50s and early 1960s was in Edmonton. Adams, according to Ted Lindsay, would walk around the team train and the dressing room with a pair of train tickets to Edmonton sticking out of his breast pocket, plainly visible.

“You see so many 5-on-3s these days,” the erstwhile left winger Lindsay told me back in 2006 as we chatted during a hockey roundtable discussion. “Back in my day, if you took a second penalty to put our team down two men, Adams would threaten to send you down to Edmonton. Or, he would just send you there.”

Adams coached in the days when the Red Wings were a mostly veteran team that had precious little roster space and ice time for young players. He didn’t suffer youthful indiscretion easily.

The time of Jack Adams and the Red Wings’ heyday of the 1950s was not dissimilar to the Detroit teams from the mid-1990s to the late-2000s.

Scotty Bowman, then Mike Babcock, didn’t have to walk around with train tickets to Grand Rapids stuffed in their breast pockets. The Red Wings were a team of Hall of Famers, steeped with playoff experience.

Today, Babcock coaches a different group.

The coach can’t roll out four lines, each stocked with talent, skill and purpose, like he did when he first came to Detroit in 2005. Because of injuries, it’s a challenge to find 12 healthy forwards to dress each night, period.

Because of injury, Babcock doesn’t have Pavel Datsyuk and he doesn’t have Henrik Zetterberg. Because of retirement, Babcock hasn’t had Nick Lidstrom for a couple years. He doesn’t have the Danny Cleary or Mikael Samuelsson that he had seven or eight years ago—as each of those forwards are now mere shells of their former selves.

Stephen Weiss, the free agent signed away from Florida, is injured, and even when healthy, Weiss was proving to be fraudulent.

Babcock’s team has been held together with baling wire and duct tape—and diapers and baby powder.

The leader by process of elimination now is 41-year-old Daniel Alfredsson, signed away last summer from Ottawa. Alfie’s two decades in the league has proven to be even more valuable than expected when the Red Wings inked him.

Back in 2007, when covering the Stanley Cup playoffs, I wrote a column that playfully asked where in the dressing room the Red Wings were hiding their fountain of youth. It was a time during the post-season when the team was getting key contributions from a collection of players whose ages were much closer to 40 than to 30. Some had already passed 40 with flying colors.

The team didn’t win the Stanley Cup that spring, but it did the following year and came a goal away from winning it again in 2009. In a way, that seems like a million years ago.

The Red Wings of today are now a collection of young, eager, energy-filled kids who started the season in Grand Rapids and figured they’d likely end it there.

Babcock is in un-chartered territory here, coaching this group of players. Behind the bench, he’s used to tapping guys on the shoulder who have resumes, not who need to show ID at the bar.

But the push for a 23rd consecutive playoff appearance this season, while uneven and at times frustrating, hasn’t required Babcock to wave train tickets around.

While some of the veterans have faltered or been hurt, the Griffins-turned-Red Wings have provided depth and an “aw, shucks” mentality that is a desired antidote to the pressure being felt at this time of the year.

While experience is terrific, there’s also something to be said for never having been there before.

Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco are four forwards whose buzzing around the ice and “It’s great to be young and a Red Wing” attitude is help lifting Babcock’s team into playoff contention.

About that.

This is another place where Babcock and the veteran players remaining on the roster are not familiar.

The Red Wings are used to being in the playoffs when the puck drops on Opening Night in October. Their January-March games have meant little in the standings. Their over/under for points never dipped below 100.

But at this writing, the Red Wings have 13 games remaining, and every one has playoff implications. The team has been scrambling for the post-season since Thanksgiving. There is no cruising; there is no resting guys for the playoff grind.

And you know the NHL.

The Stanley Cup playoffs have been the playground for teams whose scratching and clawing for the few remaining berths in the season’s final weeks have led to terrific post-season success.

The talent-wealthy and elite have often been drummed out in the early rounds by teams who’ve been playing, essentially, playoff hockey for weeks.

The Red Wings have been on that side of the coin before, and the finality when the horn sounds and there is no more hockey to be played, while the so-called lesser team whoops it up, is no fun.

For all the thrills and Stanley Cups since 1997, there have been some long summers in Hockeytown as well, with seasons ruined by “Cinderella” teams.

It’s quite possible that Mike Babcock, Stanley Cup winner, junior World Championship winner and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist coach, won’t be leading a team into the playoffs next month. It’s that dicey for the Red Wings now.

If the Red Wings don’t qualify, it won’t be because they were torpedoed by the silly mistakes made by the young. It will simply be because they weren’t good enough—a team decimated by injuries that didn’t quite have enough skill to squeeze in.

That might make the summer seem not so long, after all.

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He was wearing a smart leather jacket, hair still damp from a post-practice shower. It was one of the last team workouts before the playoffs began. Spring hockey, the best kind of hockey, was on the horizon.

But first, there was the matter of a nod to history.

Nicklas Lidstrom and I stood as spectators in the Joe Louis Arena concourse, as the Red Wings were about to unveil the new sculpture of Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. The date was April 10, 2007.

We were scrunched together, players and media alike, awaiting the drapery to be pulled from the white bronze piece of artwork that depicted Howe in follow through after a shot.

Lidstrom, unassuming in his version of street clothes, kept his eye on me, even though I was slightly behind him and to his right. He appeared to not want to lose sight of me.

Moments earlier, in the Red Wings’ dressing room, I had asked Lidstrom for a few words. I was writing for a local sports magazine at the time, and my assignment was to get a feel for the team’s mindset as the playoffs beckoned.

Lidstrom, ever the gentleman, apologized, but with a rider.

“I can’t do it now, but right after the ceremony,” he told me.

No problem.

We all were herded upstairs, near the Gordie Howe Entrance. The way Lidstrom kept looking at me, I got the feeling that he was more concerned about our chat than I was.

Not long after the unveiling, Lidstrom approached me and the brief interview began, as he promised.

He didn’t know me from Adam, although I’m sure he’d seen me in the locker room before—and would see me again.

But the point is, Nick Lidstrom made good on his word, even to an ink-stained wretch.

They’re going to have another ceremony tonight at the Joe, and this time Lidstrom won’t be merely a spectator. This time, the nod to history is a nod in his direction.

Number 5 gets hoisted to the rafters tonight, taking its rightful place next to 1, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 19 as retired Red Wings jersey numbers.

1. Terry Sawchuk, the best goalie ever and the most dour. Perhaps, at the same time, the best at what he did and the most unhappy while doing it.

7. Ted Lindsay, who had the most appropriate nickname for his on-ice persona and the most inappropriate for when he was off it—Terrible Ted. Never has the NHL seen someone who so lived up to his moniker as a player and so lived down to it as a person.

9. Gordie Howe, who is still one of the few hockey players any man on the street can actually name. The bumpkin from Saskatchewan who made good.

10. Alex Delvecchio, who played the game with quiet grace. Fats wasn’t spectacular, but somehow he always ended up with 25 goals and a bushel of assists every year.

12. Sid Abel, who centered the Production Line between Howe and Lindsay. Old Bootnose, who served the Wings so well as a coach, GM and TV commentator in addition to his years as a Hall of Fame center.

19. Steve Yzerman, who immediately comes to mind in Detroit when anyone says “The Captain.” Never has the Red Wings franchise employed a player who played with more grit and heart than Stevie Y.

Lidstrom joins these greats tonight, his jersey settling in nicely way up high. It won’t be out of place.

Lidstrom II

If Sawchuk was the brick wall, and Lindsay was the pest, and Howe was the complete player, and Delvecchio was the smooth playmaker, and Abel was the fulcrum, and Yzerman was the heart and soul, then Nick Lidstrom was the Red Wings’ calm.

The plaque of Ty Cobb outside Tiger Stadium called him  ”a Genius in Spikes.”

Lidstrom’s should say “a Guardian on Skates.”

Lidstrom, for 20 years, was the Red Wings’ sentry, a hockey beefeater who played the game without expression or emotion. He logged his 25-30 minutes a night, poke checking and  angling opponents into submission. He didn’t lay a body check on anyone in his life. Lidstrom was the game’s Lt. Columbo, who didn’t need a gun to solve crimes.

Tonight it will be official: Nick Lidstrom will take his rightful place among the Red Wings’ all-time greats. No one shall wear no. 5 in the Winged Wheel ever again.

As with the other retired sweaters in the rafters, why bother?

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The Hockey Hall of Fame is located in Toronto. But for years, the Hall had a satellite office in Detroit.

If you didn’t feel like jumping on Highway 401 or the train in Windsor, and you wanted to see hockey relics, you just needed to venture to Joe Louis Arena—specifically the Red Wings dressing room.

The players weren’t in the Hall, but that was only because they had yet to retire. Certainly, that was their post-playing destination.

The names above the cubicles in those days—from the mid-1990s to the early-2000s—were a Who’s Who of the NHL.

Yzerman. Hull. Shanahan. Hasek. Lidstrom. Robitaille. Murphy. Larionov. Fedorov. Chelios.

Everyone was 35 years old, or older. Everyone had won Stanley Cups, somewhere. Everyone had their ticket already punched to the Hall.

The Red Wings were so old and experienced in that time frame, the official team drink was Geritol.

But oh, did they win.

Stanley Cups were won in 1997, 1998, 2002 and then, after a pause to re-load the roster, in 2008.

Even the coach for three of those Cups, Scotty Bowman, was HOF-bound.

They could have erected statues outside the dressing room for the players suiting up inside.

Back then, you could be arrested for being young and playing for the Red Wings.

Youthful players were bargaining chips in those days for the league’s trading deadline. The Red Wings drafted smart, developed even smarter, and then just when you were ready for the NHL, you got traded for someone with gray hair.

There was no salary cap. GM Kenny Holland needed only to dial his boss, Mike Ilitch, tell the owner how much pizza dough it was going to take to sign the highest profile free agents, and thy will be done.

It seemed like the Red Wings had nobody on their roster less than 30 years of age.

When the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) took effect starting with the 2005-06 season, the days of the blank checks were over with. Each team would have to budget. Free-spending teams like the Red Wings—the New York Yankees of hockey—now had ceilings.

It was like telling Hitler to stop invading.

Holland managed to steer the Red Wings through the waters of salary caps and budgets to the tune of 2008’s Cup and darn near another one a year later.

But the team was still mostly made up of veterans. Youngsters were few and far between.

The Red Wings kept making the playoffs—22 years in a row now and counting—but the graybeards started to fall by the wayside after the 2009 Cup Finals.

Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper, Darren McCarty, Chris Chelios, Chris Osgood and Tomas Holmstrom were some of longtime Red Wings who hung up their skates.

Then Nick Lidstrom called it quits in 2012, which sent many fans into a frenzy of panic.

A quick look at the roster after all this churn saw a bevy of players who dared to be in their 20s.

Certainly the Red Wings would dip, most folks thought. The team was too young, too inexperienced.

Save for Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Todd Bertuzzi and newcomer Daniel Alfredsson, the 2013-14 Red Wings were shy on veteran presence.

The modern era Red Wings didn’t win four Stanley Cups and all those playoff games with kids.

It’s still in question whether this season’s Red Wings will continue the playoff-making streak, but if they do, they’ll have to do it with key contributions from youngsters.

The Red Wings aren’t used to this. Coach Mike Babcock isn’t used to this. GM Holland isn’t used to this. And the fans most definitely aren’t used to this.

“This” is seeing a bunch of young, fast players in red sweaters, creating havoc, scoring goals and flying around the ice. “This” is a reliance on a new wave of players, many of whom started the season in the minor leagues. “This” is an exciting batch of kids that might, just might, be the core of a Cup-winning team in the not-too-distant future.

For now, though, it’s about making the playoffs this spring.

Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan are four of these exciting young players. Their average age is 23. And they are becoming an annoyance to play against.

Nyquist has a knack for scoring big goals. Tatar is immensely talented and looks like the Red Wings’ next puck wizard after Datsyuk, who is basically playing on one leg thanks to a bad left knee. Zetterberg isn’t playing at all, due to a herniated disc in his back that recently required surgery.

Jurco and Sheahan, who was the team’s first round draft choice in 2010, have hockey smarts beyond their years and create plenty of scoring chances with their passing skills.

In a season marred by injuries, these four young players are tasked with keeping the Red Wings in the playoff hunt. It’s on them now. Reinforcements aren’t really on the way.

Free agent bust (so far) Stephen Weiss is only just now on the verge of returning from a sports hernia injury that has kept him sidelined for over two months.

Datsyuk plays on one leg, Zetterberg doesn’t play at all.

Johan Franzen has just played his first two games after missing 25 of 26 with post-concussion symptoms.

Darren Helm has been in and out of the lineup—mostly out—with a variety of injuries.

Even the goalies—Jimmy Howard and Jonas Gustvasson—have missed considerable time due to various physical maladies.

But the four kids are healthy as horses right now. And they’re eager. And they’re having a blast.

It just may be that the Red Wings’ fate—playoffs or not, and then how far they go in the post-season—is directly tied to how Tatar, Nyquist, Jurco and Sheahan perform.

In recent weeks, their production has saved the team’s bacon.

This reliance on so many young players is not how the Cup-winning Red Wings teams back in the day got it done.

But partly out of necessity and partly due to the fact that these kids can flat out play, today’s Red Wings are daring to take a path to the playoffs that the franchise has never had to try.

Out with the Geritol, and in with the Flintstones vitamins.

 

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