Thursday, June 11, 2009


Entering the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs, I was a bit of a jaded Red Wings fan. I think a lot of us were. We had been spoiled by the glory of 1997, 1998, and 2002. And the disappointments that followed were tough for us to swallow. It's reached a point where really, our expectations are too much. We don't just expect victory, we expect flair. We expect flashiness. We expect perfection. And whenever the Wings fall short, we are absolutely devastated, like we were in 2003, 2004, and 2006. Three seasons and four years total of tremendous letdown (or no season, thank you Bettman and Goodenow) was really hard on our spirits. Especially when they lost in the most spectacularly soul-crushing ways imaginable. A four game sweep at the hands of the 7th seeded Mighty Ducks in 2003, all four losses by a single goal, and two in overtime, including the final one that ended the season. A second round loss to Calgary in 2004, with back to back 1-0 losses in Games 5 and 6, the last one coming in double overtime in Alberta. And then the Edmonton series in 2006. Statistically, that Red Wings team was probably the best one since the lockout ended. 58 wins and 124 points, both 2nd best in franchise history. They scored the second most goals, and allowed the second fewest. They had the best power play and the third best penalty kill. And none of it mattered against the 8th seeded Oilers. Just like the 2004 Calgary series, it was tied 2-2 coming back to Joe Louis Arena for Game 5. And just like that Calgary series, the Wings lost that Game 5 at home. That time though, it looked like they would bounce back and force Game 7. They led the Oilers 2-0 after two periods in Game 6. 6:40 into the third period that lead was gone and the game was tied. The Wings retook the lead 3-2 with 9:53 to go, and the clock ticked away. Still looked like Game 7 was coming up, until the Oilers tied it again with 3:53 left (on a goal I still insist was kicked in by Ales Hemsky, but whatever). And we all remember how it ended. The pass across to Hemsky, he beats Manny Legace with 1:06 on the clock, the Oilers win 4-3 and eliminate the Red Wings and end Steve Yzerman's career.

So as I said, I wasn't especially optimistic as the 2007 playoffs began. The old guard of Red Wings players was gone. No more Shanahan, no more Yzerman. Lidstrom was the only prominent one left, but around him was a bunch of players we were still getting to know, and we were still waiting for them to produce in the playoffs. Can you believe Pavel Datsyuk had only 15 points in his first 42 career playoff games? Henrik Zetterberg only had 11 in his first 22. At this point, Johan Franzen was still mostly unknown. He was a rookie in 2005-2006, and did nothing to distinguish himself (16 points in 80 regular season games, 3 in 6 playoff games). It was an unproven bunch of players, and when the Wings drew Calgary again, this time in the first round, skepticism was abound. After winning the first two at home, the Wings lost Games 3 and 4 in Calgary, setting up yet another familiar scene: a 2-2 series tie, with Game 5 on the weekend in the afternoon on NBC at home. I think many of us were fearing, and even expecting, the worst. And what happened in that game was, what I firmly believe to this day, the moment these Red Wings started to grow up:

The Red Wings won that game 5-1, going on a tear after Cleary's penalty shot. And they won Game 6 in Calgary in double overtime, when somebody named Franzen rifled a shot past Mikka Kiprusoff. Nobody knew at the time that that goal was the birth of maybe the clutchest postseason performer in Red Wings history.

They found themselves up against it in the next round against the Sharks. Lost Game 1 at home, fell behind 2-0 in Game 2 very quickly, rallied to win it 3-2, then lost Game 3 on the road, and trailed Game 4 2-1 late. I mean, really late. As in you didn't have time to go to the bathroom because you would've missed the end of the game. 30 seconds to go, Robert freaking Lang of all people ties the game, and Mathieu Schneider wins it in overtime. Cruel irony I suppose that two players who would not be around to partake in the future glory, Lang and Schneider, were responsible for another huge step in the maturation process for these Wings. If they lose that game in San Jose, they go down 3-1 and they're cooked. Instead, they steal it, dust the Sharks 4-1 in Game 5 and finish them 2-0 in Game 6.

The hockey gods caught up with them in the Western Finals against the Ducks. Schneider broke his wrist in Game 5 against the Sharks and didn't play a single second. Niklas Kronwall, who, while not yet the earth-shattering destroyer we know him as now, was still one of our better defensemen, did not play at all in the playoffs after being hurt late in the regular season. Those injuries, combined with a still young team still learning on the go in the playoffs added up to a heartbreaker. Another four game split, another 2-2 series tie with Game 5 at home on NBC on a weekend afternoon. I spent a lot of time referencing this game back during this year's Anaheim series. We all remember it. Wings up 1-0, lose the lead on the fluttering puck of death, and then lose in OT on the most egregious turnover this side of Bird stealing it from Isiah. The hangover from the kick to the groin was too much, and yet, even in season-ending defeat, there was triumph. The Wings were down 3-0 after two periods of Game 6 in Anaheim, and then somehwhere, somehow, the lights went on, and before our eyes, we saw Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg shed the labels of postseason underachievers. A goal and an assist from Z, two goals from Datsyuk. Time ran out on them, they lost 4-3, but there isn't a Red Wings fan alive who doesn't think that that game is tied and goes to overtime if the Wings had five more minutes. It emerged too late to save the season, but Datsyuk and Zetterberg and finally filled the voids left by Yzerman and Shanahan.

Since then, that leadership has been on display at all the right times. Expectations have returned to their normally lofty levels, and the Red Wings have delivered. Sure, there have been moments of doubt. Hasek's meltdown in Nashville last year ended his career and put Chris Osgood in net. Babcock said it best then: if you're changing goalies in the playoffs, you're usually golfing a few days later. We all had horrifying Anaheim flashbacks when in Game 5 of that series, with it all tied up two games apiece, the Predators tied the game 1-1 with less than a minute remaining. It was a script all too familiar to us, and we were in shock as we saw it play out right in front of us once again. Except this time, Johan Franzen changed things up. Instead of crumbling from the shock of losing the lead late in a game they had dominated, the Wings rose up, led by Franzen, and beat the Predators in overtime. Osgood delivered a shutout in Game 6, and the Wings were moving on. A laughable series against Colorado ensued. It was an easy sweep, and by the end of Game 4 in Denver (an 8-2 win), it was men against boys. That was the series that elevated Franzen to almost mythical status. Entering the Western Conference Finals against Dallas, we were all nervously optimistic. We had faith - shaky faith, but faith nonetheless - that the lessons learned by this Red Wings team would be put to good use now. We believed they were on a mission. And they played like it, taking the first three games against the Stars. They lost Game 4 in Dallas, and then played Game 5 much like they played Game 6 in Pittsburgh the other night - tenative, conservative, unmotivated. Credit to Marty Turco for that game (and credit to Marc-Andre Fleury for the other night), but the Wings were lazy. So they lost. And now their 3-0 series lead was suddenly 3-2, with Game 6 coming up in hostile territory. Doubt crept into our minds once again. How would this team respond to adversity? How would they answer the bell on the road?

Their response? A 3-0 lead after the first period. A 4-0 lead after Zetterberg's highlight reel shorthanded breakaway in the second. A convincing 4-1 win, and a Western Conference championship. And a return to the Stanley Cup Finals. It had only been six years, and yet to me, and to many Wings fans, I'm sure, it felt like an eternity.

Fast forward a bit now. Game 5 against the Penguins. Red Wings up three games to one after winning Game 4 in Pittsburgh. An electric buzz going through the Joe, as every man, woman and child knows what's in the building. Stanley was in the house, and everyone expected the Red Wings to collect, especially after seeing how the Wings dominated Games 1 and 2 at home. But, still lacking the experience of champions, the Wings came out and panicked. Their passes were sloppy, pucks were bouncing off their sticks, there were turnovers, and it was just generally bad play. And they paid for it, falling behind 2-0 after the first. Slowly but surely though, they found their legs, and headed to the 3rd down 2-1. And the shooting gallery began. Datsyuk broke in, deked Fleury, hit the crossbar. Everybody, including myself, thought it had hit the back bar, which (obviously) would've been a goal. Instead, still 2-1. Groans and mumbles. A couple minutes later, a Detroit power play, a slap pass from Zetterberg, a deflection by Datsyuk, and a tie game. Panic was fully on the side of the Pittsburgh Penguins as the Red Wings smelled blood. Less than three minutes after that, with the pressure still mounting, a pass came out from the side of the net into the slot to Brian Rafalski, who let a snap shot go. Everything seemed to stop for a moment. For maybe a full second, nobody seemed to know where the puck was. And then the red light went on, Doc Emrick cried out that it was in, the Wings raised their arms, and the Joe went crazy. Halfway through the 3rd period, the Red Wings had taken a 3-2 lead, and the Cup was removed from its case, minutes away from being presented to Nicklas Lidstrom.

What happened after that is something that will never leave us. Yes, it proved to be ultimately irrelevant, because the Wings won Game 6. But with 34.7 seconds left, with the home crowd roaring in appreciation, Pittsburgh inexplicably tied the game at three, and 20,000 people gasped. It was a vacuum. Air was sucked out of the arena. A couple hours later, in the third overtime, the Penguins won the game. As I said, ultimately irrelevant, and yet the scar of 34.7 will always remain with us. I know many fans who refuse to ever watch it again. It was one of the most traumatic events, sports-wise that is, we had ever witnessed. And for the next two days, every Red Wings fan, while trying to recover, wondered about the players and coaches. How could they possibly respond from such heartbreak? To be literally seconds away from the top of the mountain, only to have two hands placed on your chest and be given a vicious shove backward. A year earlier we saw a Red Wings team respond to such a blow by tucking their tails between their legs and rolling over against the Ducks in Game 6. This time, we saw the response of a champion. A 2-0 lead, and a 3-1 lead in the 3rd period. Time betrayed Pittsburgh, and yet when they scored late to make it 3-2, my heart nearly stopped. I couldn't possibly bear the thought of them doing it to us again. And in the final seconds, when Crosby's backhander trickled past Osgood, and Hossa's one-handed desperation hack fluttered through the crease, I believe I jumped so high I nearly beheaded myself in the ceiling fan. And once again, time seemed to stop. The Red Wings were dazed, like they didn't know what was next. Osgood looked up at the clock for a second, saw 0:00, and raised his arms. He looked around at his teammates like, "Guys, it's over! We did it!" And they came out of their stupor, and the celebration was on as the bench poured out onto the ice.

And now this year. The most impossible of expectations have been placed on this year's Red Wings team. It is the goal of every team in every league in every sport in every country to win a championship, but very few are given the mandate by their fans: You win the title, or it's all a failure. That is the task given to these Detroit Red Wings. They loafed through the regular season a bit. Their defense was lax, the goaltending subpar. Late in the season, they lost 8-0 to Nashville and 8-2 to Columbus. There was panic and anger among the fanbase. Nobody could have envisioned the "flipping of the switch" once the postseason started. I might be the first to say it, but they were so lucky they got Columbus in the first round. The playoff virgins were the perfect tuneup. If they had gotten the Ducks first, I honestly think they might've been ousted. But four games against a wide-eyed team that had never tasted this type of hockey was exactly what the Red Wings needed to shift into playoff mode. And once they finished the sweep, the adversity returned - the Game 3 screwjob in Anaheim, where Hossa's goal was called back, and the Wings lost 2-1 to fall behind in the series. Once again, there was anxiety and anger. The last time they had trailed in a series had been two years earlier against these same Ducks, and they had not responded to that challenge like they should have. But these Wings were older, more experienced, and more savvy. They clubbed the Ducks 6-3 in Game 4 and 4-1 in Game 5. Their focus waned in Game 6, as they lost 2-1, forcing a pressure-packed Game 7. If there's one thing to really criticize about these Red Wings, its their recurring lack of killer instinct. It took them three tries to knock out Dallas in 2008, two tries to knock out Pittsburgh, and two tries to knock out Anaheim this year. Even then, it wasn't easy. A 3-1 lead late in the second period became a 3-3 tie midway through the third. Every Detroit fan everywhere, whether it be at Joe Louis Arena or on the couch watching on TV throughout the country, was on the edge of their seat. This team had come too far and been through too much together to see it end in the second round at home against their hated rivals. And like they've made a habit of doing, they responded. Dan Cleary will never be a "star" in this league. He'll never be flashy. He'll never score 30, 40, 50+ goals. But he's got a special place in the hearts of all Red Wings fans. The walkon who won a job with the team coming out of the lockout, when nothing was guaranteed to him, carved a niche on this club made out of hard work, sacrifice and determination. And he showed all of that when he delivered the final blow that vanquished the Ducks.

Against Chicago in this year's Western Conference Finals, there was a different kind of adversity. I think after Game 3, we all knew the Wings were clearly the better team. They lost that game in overtime, and actually fell behind 3-0. But they erased that lead in about five minutes in the second period, and did it with such ease, we all knew. We knew that while Chicago was young, feisty and skilled, they weren't ready for this stage. What we all knew came to the forefront in Game 4, when the Wings delivered a 6-1 beatdown while Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom watched from the sidelines, nursing injuries. In that game the Red Wings completely outclassed Chicago, and the baby Blackhawks lost their minds, taking cheapshot after cheapshot, and running their mouths like a bunch of high schoolers trying to be hard asses. They came back in Game 5 to make it close, but that tenacious little sonofabitch Darren Helm put the winner in in overtime. 2-1, Red Wings. Western Conference champions, once again.

We all knew the Finals wouldn't be as "easy" as they were last year. I use that term very, very loosely too, because they weren't easy at all last year. We all knew Pittsburgh wouldn't come out intimidated in the first two games like in 2008. I think everybody expected games much like Games 3-6 a year ago: close, tightly contested, decided by a goal or two. And for the most part, that has been exactly how it played out. The Red Wings led Games 1 and 2 2-1 after two periods, and got some...interesting goals from Abdelkader in the 3rd both times to provide some cushion. Game 3 was tied 2-2 in the 3rd, and Pittsburgh found a way to win. The Wings led Game 4 2-1 before completely losing it, just a total defensive breakdown, and suddenly it was 4-2 Penguins, and the series was tied. It was here that I was really afraid. Everybody laughs about it now in retrospect, but there is a reason all the media people said that Pittsburgh was the favorite after Game 4 because the Wings looked tired. That was true. They looked listless and fatigued at the end of that game. If that had been the case, this would've been over by now, because there's no recovering from hitting a brickwall when your energy level runs out. Of course, that turned out to be laughable, as the Wings were energized by their home crowd and dusted the Penguins 5-0 in Game 5. They played Game 6 in Pittsburgh just like they played Game 6 in Anaheim. They were unmotivated and lackadaisical. I think we all expected a big push from Pittsburgh in the first 10 minutes or so. It lasted a period, and it was 0-0. Okay, we all thought. The Penguins have their backs to the wall on their home ice, and they gave it their all, and didn't get anything to show for it. Now we'll play our game and take control. Except it didn't happen. The second period was a carbon copy of the first, and this time Pittsburgh put one on the board. They got it to 2-0 in the third before the Wings finally came to life, making it 2-1 and throwing one huge barrage late to try to tie it. So many chances. A loose puck with a gaping net on the power play, with Hudler and Lidstrom closing in, only to have Rob Scuderi sweep it away at the last instant. A breakaway for Cleary with less than two minutes to go, robbed by Fleury. A loose puck in the crease with Fleury down and out with less than 20 seconds left, only to have Scuderi rob Franzen. It was close, it was heartstopping, and it was disappointing.

What's the point of all this rambling by me? I'm here to tell you that the Red Wings will win Game 7. Absolutely. I was infinitely more concerned after Game 4 of this series than I was after Game 6. And you never, EVER bet against the home team in a Game 7. The home team is 12-2 all-time in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, and while those previous 14 games have absolutely nothing to do with these two teams, it shows a trend. It is ridiculously hard for a road team to win Game 7. Home ice advantage in hockey is probably one of, if not the biggest home advantages in sports. The Red Wings this postseason, and both teams in this series especially, have looked like completely different teams at home. Detroit is 11-1 at home in the playoffs, 4-6 on the road. It has something to do with having the last change and getting the matchups you want and being able to cheat on the faceoffs more at home, yes. But above that, it's an energy level. It's a passion, and a fire that is stoked by the home crowd screaming their lungs out. Tomorrow night is going to be perhaps the loudest crowd in Joe Louis Arena history. And you better believe the Red Wings are going to feed off that intensity. Pittsburgh's desperation level was at its peak in front of their home fans in Game 6. It's going to be pretty hard for them to match that on the road for the second straight game, especially against a Wings team that will have upped their own level of desperation and intensity.

Yeah, it's a Game 7. Anything can happen. One bad bounce, one bad penalty, one bad line change, one mental lapse can lead to the mistake that ends your season. But if there's one thing I've learned, it's to NEVER doubt this Red Wings team. We have watched them grow up right in front of our eyes. We have watched Zetterberg and Datsyuk ascend to the throne left behind by the legends whose footsteps they have followed in. Since learning their lessons in 2007, they have taken us on a marvelous journey, and answered every challenge that has been presented to them. And now, in the ultimate rubber match, the ultimate winner-takes-all showdown, the final game of the season, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals at home in Detroit, they will answer this one last challenge like champions. And they will be rewarded as such, with another Stanley Cup.

Don't stop believin'.

No comments: