Sunday, April 8, 2007 Updated: April 9, 4:50 PM ET
First-round breakdown: Red Wings vs. Flames
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
There is no such thing as a soft touch in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, and there are many who think the Flames are a good match for the Red Wings, who hit the 100-point mark for the seventh straight regular season.
The Flames backed into the playoffs when the hard-charging Colorado Avalanche lost Saturday to Nashville, negating what would have been a winner-take-all showdown Sunday night. The streaky Flames entered Sunday's meaningless game with Colorado having lost three straight games and were booed off their home ice Saturday night after losing to Edmonton, but they'd won six in a row before that to keep their hold on a postseason spot.
1. How does the loss of emerging defensive star Niklas Kronwall affect the Red Wings? Kronwall was averaging 20:39 in ice time a night, which means ancient mariner Chris Chelios will have to play more than coach Mike Babcock would like. Reigning Norris Trophy winner (and certain a finalist this season) Nicklas Lidstrom is already averaging 27:34 a night (third-most in the league), so guys like Brett Lebda and Andreas Lilja will have to shoulder an extra load. You can bet the Flames will be trying to get after them on the forecheck.
2. Can the Flames win away from the Saddledome? For most of the season, the answer to that question would have been a resounding "no." Yet, just when it looked like the Flames were about to flame out of the playoffs altogether, they suddenly found the moxie that has defined the team under GM (and former coach) Darryl Sutter these past few seasons. The Flames won four straight road games during a crucial stretch in March that should go a long way in helping them get over their road heebie jeebies.
3. Is this Pavel Datsyuk's breakout playoff campaign? Detroit GM Ken Holland sure hopes so, especially after signing the talented Russian to a whopping seven-year deal worth about $6.9 million annually. Hampered by injuries and poor production, Datsyuk has scored just three goals in 42 postseason games with the Wings. If he doesn't improve, the Wings will be lamenting another early playoff exit. Given that other Wings, including Henrik Zetterberg (inflamed disc), are hobbled with injury, the pressure is even greater on Datsyuk to deliver.
4. The pressure on both coaches will be significant, if for different reasons. Babcock has to get his team at least past the first round or there will be considerable pressure on Holland to find a coach who can get more out of this talented squad. Meanwhile, Jim Playfair has struggled through some growing pains in his rookie season as the Flames have evolved quickly from a grind-it-out squad to a more talented bunch capable of scoring in bunches. Playfair got his team on track at the right time, but playoff coaching means making adjustments on the fly, and Playfair will have to do that against one of the best teams in the NHL.
5. The Todd Bertuzzi factor. The big forward played surprisingly well given that prior to making his Red Wings debut on March 22, his most recent game was Oct. 18. Bertuzzi has played with different combinations, but could start the playoffs with Kyle Calder, another newcomer who's had a positive impact on the team, and Robert Lang. Bertuzzi played just 6:43 in his most recent game, on April 5, before leaving with a mild concussion. He missed Saturday's finale, but is expected back for Game 1. If he can regain the snarl that made him a feared opponent (before he savagely mugged Steve Moore), the Wings are a decidedly more difficult team to play against. If not, the Flames have a chance to out-muscle the Wings in the same manner Edmonton did a year ago.
• Dominik Hasek vs. Miikka Kiprusoff. This has all the makings of a classic. One of the finest goaltenders ever and a sure-fire Hall of Famer, Dominik Hasek, squaring off against a man who is set to make a claim as the best of his generation, Miikka Kiprusoff. Hasek has been reborn this season, his third go-round in Detroit, finishing with a 2.05 goals-against average and eight shutouts.
Kiprusoff, whose 40 wins heading into Sunday night's game had him tied for third in the league, has regained his other-worldly status in the final weeks of the season as the Flames held on to the final playoff berth. It goes without saying these games are expected to be extremely tight.
• Flames:Jarome Iginla was one of the catalysts for the Flames' late-season rebound as he gathered points in 13 of the past 17 games heading into Sunday night's season finale. One-time Red Wings playoff hero Darren McCarty has been out of the Calgary lineup since late December (hip injury), but is hopeful of returning to the lineup in the postseason.
• Red Wings: Lidstrom saw his point production drop from 80 a season ago to 62 in '06-07, but led all defensemen with a whopping plus-40. Daniel Cleary hasn't scored since Feb. 2, a stretch that included an 11-game layoff due to injury.
How do you feel about seven straight one-goal games? As terrific a series this promises to be, this season's Red Wings have a bit more sand than previous editions; the Flames, a little less. That'll make all the difference. Detroit in seven.Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.