Friday, June 6, 2008

Paint It Red: Stanley Comes Back to Hockeytown

It's been six long years since the Detroit Red Wings hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup in celebration of a hockey championship, but oh how sweet it was. This season was an amazing step forward for a franchise that was predicted to "fade out" of the new salary cap era. Pundits questioned whether or not the Wings could win without franchise faces like Steve Yzerman, Scotty Bowman, Brendan Shanahan, and Sergei Fedorov. Would they have enough grit? Would the goaltending hold up? Could they win with their puck possession style in the new, goal-oriented NHL? Clearly, after Wednesday night's cup-clinching victory in Pittsburgh, all of those questions were answered with an emphatic yes. This franchise has never ceased to impress me with how well they draft their players, work them through the system, and allow their core group of veterans to shape these up-and-coming stars. Ken Holland is the best general manager in all of sports and his incredible staff of scouts find the talent that you see on the ice for the Winged Wheels. The chemistry between the players is such a huge part of their success as well. No one on the team is condescending. There are no feuds between players or coaches. Everyone is a professional. Every player knows their role and doesn't jeopardize team success for their personal success. That is exactly why this team means so much to me. They are the perfect example of a sports franchise, from top to bottom. It makes me proud just to witness their accomplishments. The consistency of excellence and the professionalism of every aspect of the team is what makes me so happy to crown these men champions of the National Hockey League in 2008. Now, here are my highlights of their amazing, breakthrough season.

The Blazing Start

The beginning of the 2008 season was a great sign of things to come for Detroit. They won 13 of their first 16 games with help from both of their goalies, Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood, who each played eight of those first 16 games. It seemed that the only team that could beat Detroit at the start of the regular season was Chicago, who were responsible for four of the Wings' first six losses. Many hockey analysts predicted that the Red Wings powerplay would struggle without Mathieu Schneider, a top defenseman who left to play for the Anaheim Ducks in the offseason. The loss of Schneider was offset completely by Brian Rafalski, who came in from the New Jersey Devils and became part of the best defensive pairing in the NHL, with linemate Nick Lidstrom. Detroit's first forward line of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Tomas Holmstrom proved to be the one of the most dominant lines in the league and helped score 37% of the team's goals over the entire season, even with Holmstrom missing 23 games due to injury. Detroit looked unstoppable as they went into the all-star break, having won 37 of their first 51 games. They even had four players in the starting six for the All-Star Game in Atlanta (Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Lidstrom, and Osgood). Everything was on right on track...until February and Ian Laperriere.

The Hiccup

Nicklas Lidstrom, the Iron Man of hockey, has played in 1,252 Red Wings games since his rookie season in 1991. There have only been 1,284 games scheduled since the 1991 season for the Red Wings. That's 97.5% of the team's games over 17 years. So, when Liddy went down with a knee injury after a cheap late hit from Avalanche forward Ian Laperriere, you could have predicted trouble ahead. Captain Lidstrom was out for more than a month and the Red Wings suffered, losing 10 of their 14 games in February. When the month finally ended, and the playoffs loomed ahead, people were beginning to talk about the deteriorating Red Wings and the hard charging San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference. The shining brilliance of the 2008 regular season had been severely dented by the Wings' struggle in February. They were beat up. The list of injured players included their starting goalie (Hasek, at the time), their top four defensemen (Lidstrom, Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall, and Chris Chelios), and the hard working role player Dan Cleary. The good thing about broken bones and bruised bodies is that they heal. So, that's what Detroit did. They used their great start to help keep their conference lead during the losing streak and let their best players come back for the most important months of the year.

The Improbable Switch and the Ozzie Factor

With the regular season title locked up, the Red Wings were faced with a divisional rival in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs: the Nashville Predators. Detroit was heavily favored and experts expected a short, merciless series for the Red Wings. It started out that way, as Dominik Hasek showed his game face and helped the Wings to a 2-0 series lead. Then, things took a turn for the worse and Hasek's bumbling idiot face came into view. He was in bad position on every goal he surrendered; he shook his head; he was awful. He let in goals that wouldn't even be scored in pee-wee's. Exit Dominik Hasek, enter Chris Osgood. Coach Babcock's decision startled me. I had seen the worst of goalie changes in playoff hockey: most notably the Philadelphia Flyers' terrible choice to sit Ron Hextall for Garth Snow in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Wings in 1997. The Flyers were swept in that series and although I knew of Ozzie's greatness, I was still worried. I had seen politicians like John Kerry smolder in the heat of flip-flopping. Goaltending was supposed to be the anchor of the team, especially in the playoffs. This was a new experience. Fortunately, Hasek accepted his poor play, stepped aside, and let Ozzie lead the team to 9 straight playoff wins without complaint. All of sudden, the Wings were up 3-0 in the Conference Finals and one win away from the final round. They blew off a couple games against Dallas but came together for a tough series win in game six when the puck bounced off of Kris Draper's chin and he swatted it in. I won't forget the blood that trickled down the grizzly face of Draper as his great, red beard became greater and redder. It was playoff hockey at its finest.

The Return of Darren McCarty

During the Red Wings' amazing Cup winning seasons in 1997, 1998, and 2002, Darren McCarty was a huge factor. Playing with Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, he helped the "Grind Line" come to fame and threw the famous punches at Claude Lemieux in the famous 1996 game against Colorado. He was a fan favorite despite his stickhandling struggles and I loved watching him energize a crowd. When he left the team for Calgary in 2004, I was pretty sad. Though I'm usually sad when anyone on the Wings decides to leave, this was worse. McCarty had played on the Wings for so long. He had been through some of the tough times and some of the best times. When he left Detroit, he put his band ahead of his hockey priorities, gained weight, grew a mohawk, was cut by the Flames, and hit the bottle hard. His best friend in year's past was Draper, but the two lost touch when McCarty began living the rock star life. Last summer however, the two reunited. McCarty had been sober for a while then, and he had devoted his life to concentrate more on sobriety and his family. But, something was still missing. He wanted to come back and play hockey in Detroit. So, with Draper's help and workout regimen, McCarty got back in shape and talked to Ken Holland about a tryout. He got his chance and proved his worth in Grand Rapids as he excelled for the Wings minor league team. When he came to the Wings as a role player, he was all about effort and having fun. It was pure joy to see him score his only playoff goal against Nashville in game two of the series. The crowd went insane and the image of his face still remains in my memory. His return to the game was not only an incredible achievement but a fantastic thrill ride for me as a fan. Congrats Darren, and welcome back to Hockeytown where you belong.

Dominance from A to Z

Henrik Zetterberg. Scared yet? If you're not, you should be. The name alone is frightening to opposing teams. And, after leading the team in goals in the regular season, Z exceeded all expectations in the 2008 playoffs. He scored goals. He kept the puck away from four or five players at once. He killed penalties. He stopped Sidney Crosby on the 5-on-3 in game four of the finals. He brought back memories of Sergei Fedorov in his prime, only he's better. He spun around and scored that incredible backhanded goal on the Avalanche in the game four blowout. He led the league in playoff scoring. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy. He showed Sid the Kid that if he wants to win the Stanley Cup, he'll have to go through Z and the Wings. Zetterberg was simply the best and produced perhaps the best overall performance I have seen in my years of watching the Stanley Cup playoffs. I cannot wait for his many dazzling years ahead with the Red Wings. Way to go, Z.

Captain Nick Hoists the Cup

If there's ever been a better defenseman in the NHL than Nicklas Lidstrom, I certainly haven't seen him play. He'll win his sixth Norris trophy this year for the NHL's best defenseman and that will put him only two away from Bobby Orr's record of eight. That means Liddy will only need to play two more seasons to tie him...considering no one in today's NHL is close to his caliber of play defensively and Gary Bettman might as well just hand him the trophy every year without a single vote being cast. He's that good. Oh, and did I mention he was named as Steve Yzerman's successor as the Captain of the Detroit Red Wings? And I already mentioned his incredible fortitude in games played over his career. So, when Captain Nick was finally asked by commissioner Gary Bettman to "come get the Cup," I just about lost it. The first European Captain to win the Stanley Cup. After all of his hard work, he finally got to hoist the Cup as the absolute leader of the team. That was the most special moment of the playoffs for me. I was already ecstatic that the Red Wings had pulled it off and won the Stanley Cup for the fourth time in my lifetime but when Nick hoisted that trophy...it just put him in a class of his own.

Congratulations to the Detroit Red Wings and thank you for a great season. I will savor this championship for a long time to come.

The Detroit Red Wings are the 2008 Stanley Cup Champions!!!

1 comment:

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