As the Wings prepare for the task of trying to take out the best team in the Eastern Conference, one thing which stands out is the similarities between the two squads. Granted, they're not mirror images of one another. If they were, then these two teams wouldn't be meeting in the first round. However, defensively-responsible hockey built on a solid two-way foundation and veteran leadership makes up the cornerstone of both franchises.
The difference in this series may be in how well the pieces stack up against one another. Here are the key matchups which could define the series.
1. The Selke Showdown: Patrice Bergeron vs. Pavel Datsyuk
The best two-way player on each team is going to have a lot of say in how well things match up for Detroit. Figuring up the numbers between the two, if Pavs had played full season, there's a good chance he'd have put up better offensive figures than Bergeron. On the flip side, Bergeron also played more than twice as much time per game on the PK and had fewer offensive zone opportunities and still managed to help drive better 5-on-5 possession stats than Datsyuk (thanks juuuuust a little bit to spending about half his ice time being backstopped by Zdeno Chara too). The battle between these two may not be direct all series long either; I think Julien will want to put Bergeron on Datsyuk, but I think Babcock would prefer to use Datsyuk against David Krejci's line.
Detroit needs Datsyuk to do a better job of that thing where he scores goals but also prevents the other team from scoring goals. Pretty simple, really.
2. The Cup-Hungry Mercenary: Jarome Iginla vs. Daniel Alfredsson
In the fun old narrative that you've got to have an old guy on the roster who has never won a cup before that you can help (Dallas Drake, Ray Bourque, Chris Chelios with the realization that nothing he did in Montreal counts anyway), both teams qualify by grabbing a former team captain on a one-year cap-cheating deal. Iginla put up beautiful numbers relative to the $1.8M cap hit and $4.2M cap penalty deal he signed. Alfredsson ($3.5M / $2.0M) didn't do quite as much to impact the scoresheet, but he also spent more time skating with Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm than anybody, so 49 points out of that setup is a goddamn miracle for a man over 40.
In honesty, the thing that Alfredsson did so well for the Wings (other than tie for the team lead in points) was his own solid two-way play. Detroit hasn't had a dangerous two-way winger this good at both forechecking, backchecking, and quarterbacking a power play since he-who-will-not-be-named-but-won-two-cups-in-Chicago-and-oh-goddamnit-why-did-I-bring-this-shit-up-again?
If Detroit's going to have a chance, they need Alfredsson's impersonation of The Gipper to be better than Iginla's. They also probably need to keep him away from the media if Boston somehow takes a 3-1 lead. Just, trust me on this one.
3. The Head of Head-Games: Claude Julien vs. Mike Babcock
This one may be the hardest of them all. Mike Babcock is the best coach in the NHL. He's the smartest coach too. I'd probably give him good odds in a bare-knuckle boxing tournament and I'd definitely put money on him in both a staring contest and in no-holds-barred Jenga. Last year when the Wings faced off against the Ducks, he bamboozled Bruce Boudreau, then kept Quenneville in a quandary (haha I hate myself).
Julien? I don't know. From what I understand, these two were best buds at the Olympics and Julien was essentially Babs' second in command behind the Canada bench. Despite Claude's insistence that Shawn Thornton actually has a purpose in hockey, I think he's a really good coach at getting the most out of his personnel and making adjustments to his adversaries. The advantage I think Babcock is going to have to play up is in team comportment. Drawing the Bruins into penalties out of frustration could make a big difference.
4. The Anchor: Zdeno Chara vs. Niklas Kronwall
Let's cut the crap on this one early and start by admitting that Zdeno Chara is much better defensively than Niklas Kronwall. Kronwall is no slouch, but Chara rules half the ice when he's out there. That said, patrolling an area behind your own blue line is just part of an overall game and, as the offensive numbers bear out, Kronwall is better at making the puck go where he wants it to rather than simply being very good at funneling it into an area where it's less dangerous to his team.
I know it sounds like sugarcoating a shit sandwich and perhaps I am. Kronwall and Chara are going to play similar minutes and roles. Chara will be expected to do much better than his counterpart in Red. If Kronner is going to win, he has to play his strengths incredibly well. Moving the puck and slowing down transition are going to be his focuses.
5. The Kids: Carl Soderberg vs. Gustav Nyquist
Ok, it's a bit misleading to call Soderberg a "kid", since he's just a few months younger than veteran playoff warrior Patrice Bergeron, but he has 20 fewer regular season games played than Gustav Nyquist, so he fits the bill (plus, I wasn't going to name them "The Newcomers"). This is another matchup that won't necessarily be head-to-head, but could speak volumes to how the series turns out because at the heart of this comparison is really talking about what happens if the top levels of scoring for each team cancel each other out?
I mean, in fairness, I should probably use Sheahan or Tatar here to make Soderberg look better in comparison, since Nyquist is bonafide top-six material right now and Soderberg's numbers are built on being sheltered.
At any rate, call this one a metaphorical key matchup if you will. The fact remains that the depth matchup of these two teams could go a very long way to deciding the series. Scoring from each line is the best way to make every other line's job a bit easier.
6. The Netminders: Tuukka Rask vs. Jimmy Howard
All of the other matchups may not matter for shit if this one isn't close. Jimmy Howard had a disappointing season by his standards and will need to play exceptionally in this series to give his team the breaks they'll need to win. Tuukka Rask has tons of skill, a fiercely competitive attitude (read: he's a crybaby asshole when he loses), and good numbers in the playoffs. His record against non-Eastern teams in the playoffs is a pedestrian 2-4 though, so if the Wings can remember their Western Conference roots from all of a year ago, they should be able to take advantage of him.
In non-hockey comparisons, Jimmy Howard has the eyes of a man who has seen your future: all ten minutes of it you have left. Meanwhile, Tuukka Rask looks like Little Debbie. Honestly, they're both equally unsettling, but I'm going to give the advantage to Howard on this one because at least he's got popcorn.
Other Interesting Matchups:
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Milan Lucic vs. Johan Franzen: Lurch is the power forward that Franzen is supposed to be. Franzen plays defense a little better. Both are kind of angry assholes. The winner will be the guys who get to sit in the penalty boxes with these two.
Loui Eriksson vs. Darren Helm: Since his trade from Dallas, Eriksson has flown even farther under the radar than he was when he was the most-underrated player in hockey. Now he' the most overrated underrated player in hockey and he'll face off against Darren Helm, who should take his old crown away from him if he can stay healthy for any decent amount of time.