OK, so we hear it every year: "The Wings won't go all the way," or "The Wings don't have what it takes to win a Stanley Cup this year," or "The Wings are old, tired, and banged up," or "The Wings (fill in the blank -- something about how the Wings will lose)." It's fair to say that the Vancouver Canucks are this year's favorite to win the Western Conference, and it's also fair to say that the folks in the Bay Area have finally learned to stop over-hyping their beloved San Jose Sharks, lest they be cursed and tank in the first or second round. But again, our hometown Red Wings are largely not being taken seriously as Stanley Cup contenders. So for the naysayers (and to deliberately piss off the haters who seem to have a three-word vocabulary consisting of "Red Wings suck") I offer my reasons why I believe Mike Babcock and his crew look better than any other playoff team right now for winning the Western Conference:
1. The Red Wings are the only team that swept the first round. The Canucks were in prime position to do the same and literally fell apart in Game 4 against a Blackhawks team that had only one additional advantage they did not have previously -- the return of Dave Bolland (EDIT: Throw in the loss of Brent Seabrook and it's basically a wash). For a team that supposedly dominated the entire West during the regular season, they literally came unglued. As for San Jose, the two games they have won were overtime wins (one of which involved overcoming a 4-goal deficit) against a team that is playing without their star player, Anze Kopitar, and the Los Angeles Kings blanked them in Game 2. Yes, we all know Coach Babcock repeatedly says any NHL team can beat any other NHL team on any given day, but the embarassing Canucks loss and the struggles of the Sharks suggest chinks in their armor.
2. The Red Wings handled the Phoenix Coyotes without the presence of Henrik Zetterberg for the whole series, not to mention the notable absences of Johan Franzen and Mike Modano. The Canucks and the Sharks have had their first-string and second-string varsity players on the ice every night (with the exception of the Canucks' Manny Malholtra). Makes a great argument against anyone who claims the Red Wings are lacking in depth.
3. The Red Wings are playing the best all-around hockey out of the three division champions. I was very concerned going into the playoffs about the Wings' defense, but they have tightened up their defensive play and have made very few defensive errors -- and even when they have, Jimmy Howard has held the net and has made some amazing saves. Their offense is producing bigtime, and the power play has been very effective at deflating the Coyotes. The only area needing some work is the penalty kill. Vancouver looked very good on offense, defense, and special teams during the first three games, but then in Game 4 they suffered a complete lapse of -- what do I call it? Discipline? No, that's only part of it...Teamwork? Nah, they still played as a team...how about ICE PRESENCE? Sure, you can argue Roberto Luongo got hurt late in the first period of Game 4, but from what I saw his "injury" involved slow reaction time, NOT slow movement. Neither does his performance excuse that of the rest of the team, which allowed 7 GOALS!!! Heck, the most the Wings put up against the Coyotes was 6 (which, by the way, is the number of goals Luongo let go before he got yanked). San Jose has pulled out some tough wins, but they've also been shut out in a game they really should have won and have really needed to "dig deep" to win those two games. Would they be able to do so against a tougher offensive threat like Vancouver or Detroit? HIGHLY doubtful...
4. The Red Wings are "sharing the wealth" better than any other team. Detroit leads the playoff teams with a total of 18 goals so far, compared to 11 by Vancouver and 9 by the Sharks (in all fairness, however, the Sharks have only played three games, but I seriously doubt they'll be able to put up 10 goals in Game 4 to pull ahead of the Wings). In the case of Vancouver, Daniel Sedin has scored four of their goals. The Wings also have the widest "spread" -- 13 Wings have scored goals and 16 Wings have at least one point. There are only three Red Wings aside from goaltender Jimmy Howard who don't have a point so far (Kris Draper, Brad Stuart, and Justin Abdelkader), and only Abdelkader is in the negative with a -1 point rating. By contrast, the Canucks have six players without a point (Raffi Torres, Aaron Rome, Keith Ballard, Maxim LaPierre, Victor Oreskovich, and Tanner Glass), and they have a whopping eight players at -1 or worse. The San Jose Sharks have five players without a point (Jamal Myers, Scott Nichol, Ben Eager, Mark-Edouard Vlasic, and Justin Braun) and they have six players at -1 or worse.
5. OK, so let's talk about Jimmy Howard. Many sportswriters and those supposedly "in the know" claim he doesn't have the chops to stand up against netminders like veteran Roberto Luongo or Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi. Let's compare, shall we? Jimmy Howard has a 2.50 goal-against-average, a save percentage of .915, and has allowed 10 goals in 4 games. Roberto Luongo has a 2.95 GAA, a save percentage of .907, and has allowed 11 goals in 4 games. Antti Niemi has a GAA of 3.87, a save percentage of .853, and has allowed 10 goals in 3 games. Hmmm...call me crazy, but it sounds like ol' Howie is holding his own pretty darned well...
6. The factor that I believe is going to make the biggest difference in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs is EXPERIENCE. Yes, we all know that Vancouver and San Jose have been here before, but we also know that they don't have as much experience down the stretch as the Red Wings do. The Wings know only too well how grueling it is to win the 16 games needed to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup, and they have consistently shown greater resilience and a better ability to find ways to win than any other team in the Western Conference.
Now, I know some will say I'm ignoring the battle between the Anaheim Ducks and the Nashville Predators. Don't think for a second that I have counted either of those teams out. Neither have I counted out the L.A. Kings or the Chicago Blackhawks. There's always the possibility that the "favorites" could end up going down at the hands of an up-and-coming team that wants it more. Having said that, however, I've taken a good look at the other three teams and still believe, based on the reasons cited above, the Red Wings are looking better than any other playoff team in the Western Conference right now. A lot of things can happen between now and the Cup Finals, so let's just say the Wings are in prime position now and, as long as they keep doing what they have been doing so far and work Zetterberg back into the lineup successfully when he's ready, my money is on the Wings in the West -- scratch that, my money is on the Wings getting their fifth Stanley Cup in 14 years. Sedin twins and Joe Thornton: Be afraid. Be VERY afraid!
Naysayers and haters, flame away!