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Wings' lesson: Play hard, win easily

Friday, 05.09.2008 / 1:39 PM / Features
By Larry Wigge  - NHL.com Columnist
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Wings\' lesson: Play hard, win easily
The Detroit Red Wings learned a lesson about being mentally tough in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It has served them well ever since.

The Red Wings took a 1-0 lead in their playoff series by beating Nashville 3-1. Wings beat Predators to adance to Round 2
Call it a lesson learned. Or getting in sync. Or maybe just rediscovering what it is that drives your team once again.

Those were the words I heard most often before Game 6 of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs on a Sunday afternoon in Nashville in mid-April from people inside the Detroit Red Wings' organization.

"Never have I been in a series where the other team so quickly changed the momentum of the game," Wings center Kris Draper told me. "That's usually us."

Identity crisis? Not the Red Wings. Just call it a lesson learned.

"We all talked about how our puck possession game didn't mean a thing if we danced around on the perimeter all night, and that's what we were doing in Games 3 and 4 against the Predators," Draper said. "And that's not us.

"We've seen this before. No. 1 seeds vs. No. 8 and how you have to throw all of that out the window and just play. Before Game 5, we talked about putting pucks on the net from all angles and creating a net presence. And it seems to have worked."

Talent is abundant in the playoffs, so teams that learn quickly how much mental toughness it takes to win survive the early potholes along the Stanley Cup trail. Mental toughness is an intangible that's hard to describe and even harder for players to feel. But the Red Wings didn't post the NHL’s best record without knowing who they are and that their puck possession game also needs a commitment to grit.

Mark Messier once told me that the first round of the playoffs tests your team's mettle, your will and your passion. He compared it to the first couple of turns at the Indianapolis 500, where there are crashes galore. In essence, what Messier was saying is that teams that rise up from near-disastrous crashes on that first turn learn the lessons they need to make them stronger the rest of the way.

"You can't be comfortable with the success you enjoyed in the regular season," Messier said. "And you can't relax after winning just one round because a very different kind of team might be lurking around the corner to take you out in the second round."

The real Red Wings appeared in Game 5 of that first round, firing 54 shots on net before Johan Franzen finally gave Detroit a 2-1 victory 1:48 into overtime against stubborn Predators goalie Dan Ellis. And the real Red Wings are a team not just built on finesse and skilled passing and skating. This Detroit team has a physical presence similar to the Wings teams that won Stanley Cups in 1997 and '98.

And here we are now following a 4-1 win against the Dallas Stars to start the Western Conference finals, the Red Wings had posted seven consecutive victories.

"We can't play without creating the net presence, it's what makes the rest of our game productive," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said.

So let this serve as a warning. The stories change from one playoff series to the next. For a team to be successful, it has to show more than one identity. Odd-man rushes might not be as plentiful against the next playoff opponent. The defense might be bigger or more mobile in Round 2. The team in the next round might have better penalty killers, squelching the opportunity to win on special teams. Or it might be a better faceoff team than the previous team. Or ...

"I've always thought it was like facing a great pitching staff," former Cup champion Doug Gilmour once told me. "One pitcher might be a hard-throwing, dominant pitcher like Pedro Martinez. Another might be a knuckleballer like Phil Niekro. Another might have a great curveball like Sandy Koufax. You've got to be able to play against anything they throw at you."

Each series requires the same playoff intensity, the same passion, the same work ethic. The difference might be a little twist that adds a little personality and character to the game plan.

Personality. Character. For the Red Wings that starts -- and often in the past ended -- with the talented Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom No. 1 line. But a look at this Detroit roster is not unlike the Detroit auto business. It still has the luxury cars and sports cars, but the 30something miles-per-gallon engines show the variety in thinking.

It was no coincidence that the Red Wings had the best record in history at the All-Star break and were close at the three-quarter pole before Holmstrom and Dan Cleary went out of the lineup for a significant time with injuries, as did the entire Detroit defense.

"You can never count on someone else to let you do your thing," GM Ken Holland told me after the Red Wings dusted off the Predators. "It was sort of like a mirage. We started getting some of those injured bodies back in the lineup. But were they really ready to play up to their capabilities? That wasn't the case."

Good teams like the Red Wings learn their lessons well. They don't crash and burn on the first perilous turn in the playoffs. One thing Detroit learned without Cleary and Holmstrom is that a big mule of a man named Franzen was kind of a cross between the net-crashing Holmstrom and a power forward like Messier. Skilled and gritty.

Also, they learned that secondary scoring to go along with the all-world No. 1 line of Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Holmstrom can be a lot of fun.

"When Franzen scored that winning goal against Nashville, we all breathed a sigh of relief," Zetterberg told me. "When you've got two lines going as well as we have now, it wears down a defense and creates even more opportunities."

"What Franzen has done has been nothing short of incredible," Holland said.

When Franzen scored in Detroit's win in Game 1 against Dallas, it was his league-leading 12th goal of the playoffs and, oh yeah, it also gave him a goal in five straight games -- a Detroit playoff record last accomplished by legends Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay way back in 1964.

We're always looking for defining moments in sports. That 54-shot victory in OT in the first round of the playoffs definitely was one for Detroit.

I've always compared the pressure of the playoffs to golf, even if it is an individual and not a team sport. Think about it, anyone can make a 3-foot putt. But tell that same golfer he can win $10,000 if he makes the putt and all of a sudden it isn't a tap-in anymore. That's mental toughness. And that's what every coach warns his players about all throughout the playoffs.

Consider Detroit's mental toughness challenged by Nashville and the need for it continually pushed by veterans like Draper and Kirk Maltby and Nicklas Lidstrom inside that Red Wings’ dressing room.


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