Being awake until 2 am followed by coming into work the next morning is always difficult, but when the reason that you're so tired is because you stayed up to watch your hockey team win a Game 7 and move on in the playoffs, then it's totally worth it.
The Red Wings, that flawed, inconsistent, maddening mess of a hockey team, proved all the doubters wrong once again by coming up big in a game they absolutely had to have. For those keeping track at home, the Wings went 4-0 down the stretch to get in to the playoffs, were 3-0 when down a game to the Ducks in their series, and 1-0 in a winner-take-all Game 7.
The Wings weren't the dominant team throughout this series, and there was plenty of stress due to their inability to hold leads in each of the first three games they won, but ultimately they proved to be the better team over the course of 7 games and ousted a Ducks team that probably wasn't as good as their record indicated.
Now it's on to the second round and a match up with the heavily-favoured Chicago Blackhawks, the team that has pretty much owned them for the past few years.
As most of you know, I live in the Chicagoland area, so I've been able to watch the Hawks up close and personal, and this is a very good team the Wings are facing. Out of every team left in the playoffs, they're my pick to win the Cup because they're the most complete. Every other team has significant weaknesses, while Chicago looks, at least on paper, to be just about unbeatable.
I have no delusions about the Red Wings winning this series. They were beaten all 4 times by the Hawks this season, including a rout so bad that guys in prison thought was over-the-top cruel. The Hawks are fast, skilled, tough, and have very good players at all positions.
That's not to say the Wings CAN'T win this series, but they're going to have to play much better than they did against the Ducks. Sitting on 2-goal leads and failing to convert on opportunities will result in this series being over in a hurry.
We'll preview all that in the coming days, but right now I'm feeling nothing but pride in this team. A month ago it looked like this team was dead in the water. They were playing like garbage, they had injuries, they couldn't hold a lead, they couldn't beat Calgary, there were a bunch of other teams right there with them trying to take their spot.
Then the last week of the season happened and the Wings turned it around. Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Jimmy Howard rose up and played out of their minds and the Wings were in. While the Wings were the "favorites" by a lot of experts, those of who watched this team night in and night out knew that we couldn't take anything for granted. But they once again, Z, Pav and Jimmy put the team on their backs and carried them into the second round.
And so here we are, facing the prohibitive favourites in a series where no one will give the Wings a hope of winning. And you know what? That's ok. Because the Hawks are a great team (no matter how much we may hate them) and there's no shame in losing to a great team.
The Wings are playing with house money here. Hell, it's not even house money. After crapping out in the first 10 minutes at the blackjack table, they found a chip on the floor, decided to put it on one number at the roulette table, won that, then decided to try again, and have been on a streak ever since. There's nothing to lose because they started with nothing, and the Wings can play that way because they're finally an underdog.
To me this seems like 2009 but reversed: the Hawks are the superstar-laden team with tons of depth trying to win another Cup while the Wings are the up-and-coming team with the next generation of players trying to gain experience in a transition year. That series turned out to be a short but very close 5 game affair that saw 3 games go to OT. The Hawks used that series as a learning experience and won the Cup the following year. Can the Wings take some lessons from this series regardless of the result?
There are a lot of keys to this series for the Wings, and we'll talk about them in more detail as we get closer to Wednesday, but for me, the biggest one is this: don't forget that you're not supposed to be here. No one outside of the most die-hard of fans thought this moment would come (and even they would tell you they had doubts at times), yet here you are continuing to make us all look silly for ever believing that you were going to be just another hockey team.
Times have changed, but this seems fitting: the NHL's most historic rivalry ending with a playoff series before the Wings head east. I'm not optimistic about the Wings pulling off another upset, but I'm ecstatic they're going to get an opportunity to try.