Thursday, February 21, 2008
Red Wings' 'road to perfection' hits major speed bump
By Damien Cox
Special to ESPN.com
It's not a perfect comparison, but there are similarities between the season recently completed by football's New England Patriots and the one being experienced by the NHL's Detroit Red Wings.
The Wings were almost Patriot-perfect in the way in which they waltzed through the opening four months of the season, but recently they stumbled into six straight defeats, the team's worst losing streak in 17 years. It seemed the Wings were hitting a speed bump in the final portion of their season in the same way the Pats were seriously challenged, and very nearly beaten, by ordinary teams like Philadelphia and Baltimore in the final weeks of their regular season.
We all know, of course, how that fantasy football story ended, with the 18-0 New Englanders stunned on Super Bowl Sunday by the New York Giants.
It could be that the Red Wings are headed for a similar conclusion, particularly since the Western Conference is packed with tough opponents, from defending champion Anaheim to hard-nosed Calgary to talented San Jose. Vancouver, led by superb goalie Roberto Luongo, could trip up anybody.
And if the Wings get past those obstacles, any number of upset-minded Eastern Conference clubs would await.
There's even a Patriots-Red Wings comparison in the fact that while quarterback Tom Brady was hindered to some degree by an ankle injury in the playoffs, the Wings have lost brilliant defenseman and captain Nicklas Lidstrom for at least three weeks after he suffered a right knee injury on Monday night against Colorado. In his previous 15 seasons, Lidstrom had missed only 22 games to injury.
Throw in the fact that Detroit coach Mike Babcock is a keen admirer of Bill Belichick and the Patriots' style of organization, and there are clearly parallels. Babcock, you should know, is a frequent visitor to Belichick's Web site and reads the New England coach's press conference remarks. He felt the impact of the Patriots' defeat to the Giants in a very personal way.
"I was hoping the Patriots would win," Babcock said in a recent interview. "I'm a big fan of their approach. But yeah, somebody can always beat you in the end."
The differences, however, between Detroit's hockey heroes and New England's football juggernaut may be these.
First, Detroit's problems of late may be just the adversity the club needs.
Second, the Wings have another six days to try to improve their team in a very significant way.
Let's deal with the adversity issue. The two-month Stanley Cup odyssey is unique from other sports in a number of ways, but it has been suggested the most significant challenge in trying to win four consecutive best-of-seven series is the ability to absorb defeat and seeming disaster one night, and bounce back two nights later or even the next day.
The theory, then, is that teams which move too easily through the regular season don't build up the mental scar tissue that allows them to have the necessary resilience in the grinding postseason, when the most important quality of any team may be to quickly forget painful defeats.
Last spring, the Wings romped through the then-weak Central Division in the regular season, and it's arguable that one element in their conference-finals loss to Anaheim was the Ducks' greater appetite for the more bitter elements of postseason hockey.
Right now, it's fair to say the Wings are absorbing a few scars. Of late, they've lost to Los Angeles and Toronto, two of the NHL's worst teams, and were hammered 5-1 last week by Columbus, a hard-checking but offensively limited club.
Along with Lidstrom's injury, Henrik Zetterberg has had to deal with a back problem this season, while winger Dan Cleary is out with a fractured jaw after being hit by a teammate's shot in Toronto. On Wednesday, meanwhile, both defenseman Brian Rafalski (groin) and goaltender Dominik Hasek (hip flexor) were placed on injured reserve. Hasek has missed the past five games, and Rafalski the past three.
Throw in blueliner Nicklas Kronwall's long absence with a broken clavicle, and three of the club's top defenseman are now out.
Lidstrom was injured when he was body checked by Colorado's Ian Laperriere, a hit that may have been an elbow and that left the elegant Swede dazed. He injured his knee falling to the ice. The Wings were enraged by the hit, and soon afterward Detroit enforcer Aaron Downey confronted Laperriere and the two dropped their gloves; the Wings might have been looking for such a response in the playoffs last spring when Anaheim's Chris Pronger left Tomas Holmstrom bloodied and semiconscious with an illegal hit into the side boards.
"When the elbows are up and you hit a five-time Norris [Trophy] winner, arguably one of the best defensemen ever to play the game, it's a joke, in my mind," Downey said. "So the message is simple. The next time anyone runs one of our guys in a way that shouldn't be done, then a message will be sent."
Later in the game, Babcock and Colorado assistant coach Tony Granato became embroiled in a shouting match, sparking memories of earlier confrontations between Scotty Bowman and Avs coach Marc Crawford during the heyday of the once fiery Detroit-Colorado rivalry.
A string of losses, some injuries and a little ugliness on ice, then, have forced the Wings to battle more than they've had to in most recent seasons. Since last winning the Stanley Cup in 2002, the Wings have earned at least 109 points in every regular season but have made it as far as the conference finals only once. Having some problems in this regular season, then, may prove to be a blessing in disguise.
The second difference between the Pats and Wings, meanwhile, may be that Detroit still has the opportunity to enhance its roster in a way that either isn't available to NFL clubs in the final stages of the regular season or simply isn't done.
The NHL trade deadline arrives Tuesday, and the Wings are expected to be a prominent player in the process. While a sluggish trade market has some wondering how much action there will be before the 3 p.m. ET deadline, there were 25 deals on the final day of last season alone, and right now there are significant numbers of would-be sellers and buyers urgently looking for pre-deadline bargains.
Detroit, under GM Ken Holland, has never been afraid to make big moves at the deadline, moves that included sacrificing major chunks of the team's future. Last January, the Wings moved junior prospect Shawn Matthias to Florida in exchange for veteran winger Todd Bertuzzi, a shadow of the power forward who once scored 46 goals in a single season but had his career altered by a long suspension received for his March 2003 on-ice attack on Colorado's Steve Moore.
Bertuzzi was average at best for the Wings in the 2007 postseason, scoring three goals, while Matthias starred for Team Canada at this year's World Junior Championship and appears to have a bright future.
Right now, the Wings have been linked to marquee players like the Blue Jackets' Sergei Fedorov, a former Detroit star, Atlanta sniper Marian Hossa and Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin. Any of those players could enhance the Detroit roster, as would a rock-ribbed defender like Columbus back-liner Adam Foote or a blue-line speedster like Brian Campbell of the Buffalo Sabres, particularly with all the injuries on the Wings' blue line these days.
To help Downey in the toughness department, meanwhile, Holland appears set to sign former Wings winger Darren McCarty, who last played for Detroit in 2004 and has since seen his career derailed by injuries and personal problems. McCarty has been playing for the team's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich., and is expected to be signed before Tuesday's deadline.
So if you were doing a half-full analysis of Detroit's season, you'd say trouble will toughen this team and deadline additions will make it even better than it was when it tore up the league in December and January.
The half-empty perspective, meanwhile, might wonder if this story is starting to sound awfully familiar, something like a recent football soap opera.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."