Having lost an embarrassing second-round loss to the Sharks last year and now facing a 3-0 hole against the same team, the Detroit Red Wings’ reign as the NHL’s supreme franchise seems over. Their leader, Nicklas Lidstrom, is 41 years old. As the “perfect human,” he may physically be years from retirement, but as much as his heart is with his hockey team, his heart is with his family. Facing elimination, this could be the end of an era. Without Lidstrom, the team may never again be this talented.
In May of 1997, the Detroit Red Wings had waited 42 years since winning a Stanley Cup Championship. Having lost to the New Jersey Devils two years before and to the Colorado Avalanche the previous year, they were perennial regular-season over-achievers and playoff chokers. Their leader and heart, Steve Yzerman, had faced blasphemous trade rumors for that very reason. They simply couldn’t win in the playoffs, and time was ticking.
Months after having physically beaten the Avalanche in their revenge brawl on March 26th, the Red Wings faced the Avs in the playoffs and showed that they were the better team. Steve Yzerman was the leader that he has always been: a man who can transform a floundering franchise into a winner. His Wings beat the Avs in six games and went on to dominate the finals and bring the Cup back to Hockeytown.
In 2011, after losing three games and all but proving that the Sharks are definitively the better team, the Red Wings go on to win two straight games by out-working the Sharks. And then they play a game six with a level of emotional intensity not seen since their ’97-’98 Stanley Cup runs. They are playing like winning is a matter of will, and in doing so are channeling their 1997 and 1998 counterparts.
This is most evident in game six of the series. Just as they had demoralized the Avalanche with that 1997 brawl, the Red Wings have demoralized the Sharks by grabbing the series’ and the Sharks’ throat. In game six they knew from the start that they had to play Red Wings hockey and did just that by outshooting the Sharks 18-6 in the first period. They threw everything at the Sharks and did not stop no matter how often Niemi said no. They dominated the first two periods, and the Sharks could do nothing. The Red Wings were the better team: their passes were crisp, they skated fast and hard, and they played cohesive hockey. They played like a team that had decided to win this game.
When Logan Couture scored first for the Sharks, the Wings hiccoughed, but not for long. When Henrik Zetterberg deflected Niklas Kronwall’s shot past Niemi, the Joe Louis Arena crowd leapt to their feet and would be hard-pressed to sit down from then on. They knew what was coming. It was obvious to everyone in the building what this Red Wings team could do.
When Valtteri Filpulla put them ahead 2-1, it offered only confirmation of the obvious: that this team can do amazing things. Justin Abdelkader’s ill-timed holding penalty brought the Sharks’ scary power play, but this was just part of the drama that made game six eerily similar to the Wings-Avs rivalry of a decade ago.
The similarities do not stop there. This series shows that these Red Wings are a team to remember for a long time.
As always, the media has questioned the Red Wings’ goaltending. Despite years of Dominik Hasek (who was obviously not without a different type of goaltending drama), it’s rare that Detroit goalies don’t face intense scrutiny. This was the case with Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood over a decade ago, no matter how often their goaltending came through. Many doubt Jimmy Howard’s ability, yet he has kept the Red Wings in the series. He has the best possible goaltending mentor in the calm and clutch Osgood, and his timely saves are exactly what the Wings needed, just as they needed them from Vernon and Osgood in ’97 and ‘98.
No goaltender has stifled a Red Wings team like Patrick Roy. No goaltender is more deserving of a Detroit fan’s hate and respect, and no goalie is ever likely to come close. This is partially because of the changes to the game: smaller equipment, greater speed, and more focus on speedy offense. Yet this is mostly because Patrick Roy was a goalie who could win a series by himself.
This is how Antti Niemi is playing. Not like Patrick Roy, but like a goalie who could win a series by himself. The Red Wings have solved him. Just as they solved Patrick Roy in 96-97, it doesn’t matter how good Niemi is right now. The Red Wings are simply better.
No one will ever replace Vladimir Konstantinov, who was quite literally Vlad the Impaler. Yet … Niklas Kronwall.
Bad blood? No, this series doesn’t quite have that. No one will ever deserve more hatred than Claude Lemieux and his gruesome hit on Kris Draper. Yet the Sharks last year beat the Wings in five games, and they are suddenly pissed off. The Wings have them off their game, and it’s showing. Is the scrum at the end of game six indicative of a hate-filled game seven? Probably not. Jimmy Howard did not rush toward Antti Niemi at center ice, after all, but Datsyuk did get a nice pop in at Torrey Mitchell.
The Red Wings again have an impressive fourth line. Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller, Kris Draper, and Justin Abdelkader have played with impressive speed and determination, despite Abdelkader’s bone-headed penalties. The Red Wings have out-hit the Sharks in every game this series—mostly by a significant margin—even in game six, when the Sharks came close with 27 to the Wings’ 30. What player on this team isn’t channeling the Maltby – Draper – McCarty – Kocur Grind Line of old? Even Datsyuk often finds himself among the team leaders in hits.
Don’t forget Dan Cleary. He may have hit the post in game six, but he saved the Wings in game five. He’s not scoring like Darren McCarty, but he’s playing with the same kind of gruff skill.
Have the Wings faced Fedorov’s $28 million holdout? No. The closest is Hudler’s complete bust of a departure to the KHL, but balancing that out is the steal that is Jimmy Howard’s two-year, $4.5 million contract extension that will kick in next year (right now his $800,000 contract is paying for what seems like a $5 million-per-year playoff performance). No, the Wings this year face nothing like that. This team wants to win more than they care about individual goals.
Few players match Yzerman’s passion and skill. In 1995 and 1996, when the Red Wings lost, he lost. In 1997 and 1998, when he won, the Red Wings won. He is a once-in-a-lifetime player.
In 2011, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Lidstrom lead the team. Zetterberg has never had Datsyuk’s hands, but for a long time Zetterberg has been a skilled, hard-working scorer, even when he’s hurt. He has always played his best hockey in the playoffs, and his deflection in game six makes that clear. He is a leader who can win games when he needs to.
Lidstrom’s smart positioning in game six by pinching low when the Sharks weren’t looking is clear evidence of his skill. He stayed off the score sheet, but he had five shots, played well defensively, and was often in position to score. In game four, he proved with his two goals that he is a leader who can win games when he needs to.
Datsyuk keeps learning and improving. The way he dances in the slot shows not only his skill. He has never played this well in the playoffs. Even though years like that are well behind him, he has been quiet in previous playoff years, but that is clearly over. Playing better with his current undisclosed injury than he’s played in years without one, Datsyuk has become a more mature player than ever before. His three assists in game five showed that he is a leader who can win games when he needs to.
Will the Red Wings win game seven on Thursday? In game six of the series on Tuesday night, they wanted to win every bit as much as they wanted to win in 1997 and 1998. Since they lost to the Penguins in 2009, this team has developed into the team that has now recovered from a 3-0 deficit against the Sharks. They are poised to enter the conference finals. In 2009, they realized that another team wanted it more when they lost to the Penguins. In 2010, they were too tired from their playoff success to beat a hungry Sharks team. Over the past week, they have channeled the heart of their 1996-1998 counterparts.
Game six featured the kind of Red Wings magic reminiscent of the Wings-Avs rivalry. Not since 1997 has a Red Wings win been so historical and monumental. This is the kind of hockey to remember ten years from now: the kind of hockey to cherish however long it lasts. Three games straight, the Wings faced elimination, and three games straight, the Wings willed themselves into winning. This is what they did in 1997 and 1998, and it is magical to see it again.
Will the Red Wings win game seven? Draw your own conclusions.