The Malik Report
by George Malik on 04/18/14 at 02:20 AM ET
The Detroit Red Wings will begin their playoff journey against the Boston Bruins tonight (7:30 PM EDT on FSD and NESN locally, NBCSN and TSN everywhere else and on 97.1 FM), and if you haven't seen the schedule already, here's a different version for you:
In lieu of a formal Game 1 preview, I'm going to go off the cuff and on the fly for this one because I can tell that the TV scheduling and TD BankNorth Garden gods have given Red Wings fans more than enough time to get angry at Ken Holland, angry at Johan Franzen (I sure hope he's not making us angry two weeks from now) and angry at me for getting a stupid flu bug (please note: I did not intend to get the Doctor's Office Flu. It was awful).
Long story long, Wings fans have had WAY too much time on their hands since last Sunday's season-ending win over St. Louis, and too much time--five frickin days--yields discontent, though my over-under on Boston people joking about Detroit being some sort of steaming cesspool of filth clicked off sometime this past Tuesday morning.
I'm sure that almost no media expert is picking Detroit, I'm sure that those who sling Chowdah have already insisted that Detroit is some sort of sequel to Robocop that floats in the sky, detached from the rest of Southeastern Michigan, and...
I'm guessing that some of you have already come to the realization that so many Red Wings fans who have cheered for the Boston Bruins as their other favorite team are going to come to over the next week or two:
This is not going to end well, and no, Detroit and Boston cannot be hockey friends anymore.
Stop drinking your Sam Adams, by the way, it's illegal for the next two weeks (kidding), though if you must pour your beer into your Boston Cooler (Vernors and Vanilla Ice Cream), take heed and know that your Boston Cooler is in fact a Detroit-originating drink.
The first time Brad Marchand goes into the corners against Niklas Kronwall with both elbows at face-height, the first time that Zdeno Chara tries to eviscerate Justin Abdelkader, the first time that three players crash the net at the same time or the first time that Claude Julien and Mike Babcock trade barbs in dueling press conferences after the last 5 minutes of the 3rd period go crazy...
Those of you who think that the Bruins "play the right way," if not, "The way the Wings should play," are going to find your spoked-wheel B's hiding behind your spoked-wheel Wings in a hurry. I have the feeling that the same will be taking place in Boston, where they'll be insisting that Michiganders sound like Cheeseheads and have no idea what it's like to live in a real Haahkeytahn (given Boston's rich NCAA Division I tradition).
Despite Claude Julien's protestations to the contrary, there is no doubt whatseover that the Red Wings go into this series as the underdogs. To the point that the "#WhyNotDetroit" hashtag may be used instead of #OctopiHockeytown, if only to piss Bruins fans off.
Everybody and their cousin's uncle's bowling buddy's dartboard is picking the Bruins to come out of the East and the Sharks, Blues, Blackhawks, or yes, the Bruins to win the Cup (how the hell does someone have a 1-in-20 chance of winning a championship when the odds of winning are theoretically 1 in 16?).
Hell, I don't like the Wings Swedes' chances of anything other than heading to Minsk, Belarus to play in the World Championships starting on May 9th--I may be biased as *#$%@&, but I'm not unrealistic--but there are three reasons that I am more nervous than usual:
1. The First Round Crackdown.
For the past three seasons, the NHL has consistently decided to let everything go from some arbitrary date 2/3rds into the season (this year it was the Olympic break; most years it's the trade deadline) until the end of the regular season, but while post-season prostate exams sans lubricant or consent will still be legal this evening, the NHL will have instructed its referees to call each and every free hand or horizontal stick foul they see for the next ten days.
The Wings have had a horrible time adjusting to this, and those of us who are more paranoid in the "Detroit vs. Everybody" philosophical school than most might argue that the NHL insists that its referees make something of an example of the team in red by calling the speedy Wings for every sideways glance that might be viewed as "sutble interference" or "deception" by Eddie Olczyk.
If this younger, speedier Wings team can keep its hands to itself and its sticks down, it can go far. If the cursory 3-to-5-game adjustment period applies, we'll be talking about when locker room clean-out day might occur a week from now.
2. Special teams.
As a result, the Wings tend to spend an inordinate amount of time on the penalty-kill during the first round, and the penalty-kill's been as leaky as the power play has been useless when the Kid Line is not employed. The Wings have had a particularly difficult time moving net-front agitants out of Jimmy Howard or Jonas Gustavsson's sight-lines down the stretch, and Zdeno Chara is very hard to move.
3. Depth on defense.
This is where I'm genuinely afraid. If I were to suggest that any of the Wings' injuries is particularly damning, I wouldn't pick Henrik Zetterberg's absence: I'd pick the fact that Jonathan Ericsson's out for at least most of the first round due to torn cartilage in his ring and/or middle finger.
I adore Brian Lashoff as a human being. He's one of the nicest people I've ever met, and I root for him. Jakub Kindl's come a long way from the Wings' highest pick since Martin Lapointe in 1991 to somebody who was never going to live up to his record with the OHL's Kitchener Rangers to a late-blooming offensive defenseman.
But the two of them have been a disaster on ice when they've taken to the ice together over the past six weeks. Occasionally Kindl wll post a couple of assists or fire enough pucks that Babcock will keep him going over the boards, but there've been half-a-dozen times when one or both of #23 and/or #4 have played the least of any Red Wings player, fourth-liners included.
The guy who earned a spot on the blueline last year and kept it this year because he realized that punching someone with two hands on their stick, anywhere between the small of their back and their shoulder blades, is in fact legal (Lashoff) has lost his positioning, and despite his propensity to shoot and his superb passing skills, the other (Kindl) has been caught standing and staring as the opponent places the puck into the empty net so regularly that his name might as well have been Post-Olympic Quincey (because Kyle Quincey, as it turns out, has been really good, and Brendan Smith's done a good job as the de-facto #2 guy).
Hell, Kronwall can have his moments, Smith and Quincey still have theirs, and Danny DeKeyser has the occasional hiccup, too, and the problem over the last month is that there's been no one to spare them.
Add in a hiccup from the Kid Line (Riley and the Slovaks, a.k.a. Tatar, Sheahan and Jurco, are still doing a lot of "learning," and by "learning," I mean cheating toward offense and allowing goal-scorers to slither through the cracks as a result), a meander from Miller, Glendening and whoever they're playing with (No Nyquist Privileges Legwand of late) or a startlingly predictable once-a-period goof from whoever's allowed to play with Nyquist (usually Franzen and Datsyuk these days)...
Boom, back of the net.
Bonus worry round: Then there is the bugaboo that is playoff goaltending, and while I'm an admitted member of the Jimmy Howard Defense League, those of you who've been begging for Petr Mrazek all season long do know something that Howard doesn't seem to grasp: despite the fact that it's all but expected for a Detroit goaltender who's signed a contract extension to have the same kind of year a Detroit pitcher has after he signs a contract extension--a mediocre, inconsistent one--all that money and the no-trade clause and that lockout-proof signing bonus yield nothing in the way of job security...
And Babcock has made it very clear that he enjoys the fact that Mr. Mrazek's, "I'm gonna steal the starter's job" mentality is the kind of mentality he likes.
Howard's been much better of late, but can he sum up enough moxie to best Tuukka Rask?
I dunno. I hope so.
Bonus worry round, take 2: Jarome Iginla, pain in the Wings' asses since Wings-vs-Flames, 2004. He knows the Wings like Alfredsson knows the Bruins, and he's a jerk.
Bonus worry round, take 3: In case you missed it, from NHL.com's Wings-Bruins series blog:
Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg skated with teammates for a half-hour Thursday but is not expected to play until the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, if the Red Wings advance.
"Time-wise we were shooting for Round 2 if everything goes well," Zetterberg told the Red Wings website. "Increase intensity every day and hopefully in a couple days maybe I can do some more battling drills."
Zetterberg had back surgery on Feb. 21 after he was injured during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"I think today is just one of the steps that I have to take," Zetterberg said. "I have to start skating with the team a little bit and it was fun to be out there today and didn't do that much but hopefully I can do more tomorrow."
Coach Mike Babcock is not certain when he will have Zetterberg available. The forward traveled with the team to Boston.
"I saw him at Nick Lidstrom's retirement March 6 and he couldn't walk," Babcock said. "He hobbled his way out onto the ice. Now he's out there skating. That's a long way in a short period of time. Anyone that's been injured and off a good chunk of time when they arrive back they see how fast everything is. It's hard. That's the tough thing about injuries; even when you get the guys back, they're not themselves. They wear the same number but they don't do what they did because it's just too hard."
I guess that's where this worry-ridden preview was going to end up, no matter what: in terms of scoring depth, checking ability, nastiness, defensive depth in particular, goaltending, special teams play, everything but coaching, the Bruins theoretically have the edge.
The same is true for puck possession, the one thing that's allowed the Wings to negate the Bruins' vicious forecheck and trap-trap-trap-happy defense, and yes, it's strict adherence to puck possession hockey--with a dash of playoff-style mean and nasty, intent-to-injure forechecking--that will give the Red Wings a snowball's chance against the Beasts of the East.
That's the good part, though.
Despite what the Wings and Bruins will tell you, despite what the media will tell you, human nature is a beautiful thing, and it's working against Boston in two ways:
1. The truth of the matter is that the Bruins do face a significant amount of pressure, from without and within, to do nothing less than right last spring's wrong and recapture the Stanley Cup. The Red Wings used to have to deal with this kind of stuff, and sometimes they did OK, but they've come up short every time but once in the modern era.
2. The truth of the matter is also that the Bruins do not have time on their side--at least in terms of physical and mental wear and tear. The Bruins have been to the Stanley Cup Final
three two of the past four years, and last season, that meant that Boston was playing into the last full week of June.
The Bruins have played in enough post-season hockey to tack another lockout's worth of hockey onto their odometers, and they also had five Olympians--Chara, Eriksson, Krejci, Rask and Bergeron, not exactly bit players.
The Wings had ten, yes, but the Wings' Olympians were out of the playoffs by the end of May, not the week before July started.
Bonus good stuff round: There is an odometer ticking for the Red Wings, and I know Mike Babcock can hear it.
The Red Wings haven't been to a Stanley Cup Final in 5 years and haven't won a Cup in 6 years. Babcock--who is going to coach here for as long as he wants to coach here (i.e. expect him to sign an extension, not to go somewhere else a summer from now)--has stated from the first day of training camp that the Wings haven't made it to the Conference Final since 2010, and that in his mind, that means the Wings haven't reached finished where they need to be finishing (I'd say reach the proper standard of excellence, but I don't want to misquote the man).
The Wings' veterans feel similarly. Bowing out in the first round against Boston isn't going to be "good enough." It'll be at least two rounds short of "good enough" for a standard Red Wings season, and three rounds from the goal the team aims for every year in the Stanley Cup.
Bonus good stuff round, take 2: At the same time, despite Daniel Alfredsson's desire to win it all this season, the Wings have a funny mix to them, at least for those who aren't familiar with the Wings' sometimes seemingly placid, "We're gonna keep going, keep a steady hand on the rudder, steady course for the ship, not get to high, not get too low" demeanor.
As Niklas Kronwall's become the de-facto captain, there's been an edge to the team that we haven't seen since Kris Draper retired. These guys get pissed off. Hell, Pavel Datsyuk has more of an edge to him since his knee injury. That edge is going to be essential against the Bruins, and Kronwall's all edges these days.
At the same time, "the kids" are borderline arrogant at times, and that's not just Brendan Smith I'm talking about (the fact that Smith wants to one-up his brother Reilly is either a very good thing or a very bad thing. It will probably be both). Sheahan and Glendening are good young men who have tons of confidence in themselves, but Tatar and Jurco...
They're cocky as hell. Sometimes that's bad (see: being too loud for your neighbors) and requires some growing-up and maturing, but sometimes, especially on the ice, that's a good thing, and while it often yields players trying to do too much on their own (please see: Tatar on a breakaway, circa the last six weeks), sometimes it's good to both think that you're hot shit and to not give a shit what the "odds" might be.
That's a breath of fresh air, and if you think that it's too much of one thing and not enough of the other, remember that Danny DeKeyser's of the Steady Eddie school, which balances things out nicely.
Bonus good stuff round, take 3: Darren Helm, healthy.
Bonus good stuff round, take 4: How long is the flight to Boston? As opposed to Anaheim?
Bonus good stuff round, final edition: The puck is a disc and it has no loyalties. You earn your bounces, you earn your luck, there are no "hockey gods" (as far as I'm concerned), and the game is a contact sport where people get hurt in each and every game, played on ice. Shitty ice at this time of year.
It's a game where people get hurt and the puck does funny things.
One of the many injured players for the Wings this season, Datsyuk, was making his long-awaited return when I was in Detroit. “The whole thing is to understand it’s not about Pavel one bit,” said Babcock, who had just returned from his routine post-practice jog around Joe Louis. “It’s about the Red Wings, and the guys that are playing, and we just got to keep grinding.”
The guys that were playing included Nyquist, who leads the league in goals since January 20 thanks to an unsustainably high but undeniably entertaining shot percentage spike, as well as Sheahan and Jurco and Tatar and other young players like Brendan Smith, DeKeyser, and Glendening. Ask them what they were doing in 1991, and they have no answers, because they were too young to be truly sentient. After the playoff-clinching Pittsburgh game, Babcock paid tribute to the multitude of rookies (or, in the case of Nyquist, close to it) on his squad. Even with Datsyuk back, and with Daniel Alfredsson in and out of the lineup, he’ll continue to rely on them as Detroit chases the Cup. (Again.)
“They came here and they took jobs,” he said. “They’re not going anywhere. They’re real good players that keep getting better and they’ll be part of us for a long time … We’re a way quicker, harder team, we’re a more physical team.
“And we can’t be backed off,” he continued. “I like us.”
See also, per the Free Press's Steve Schrader:
The puck does weird things, and I've been watching this team for 23 years, but going into this round, I haven't seen any team like this one.
The Boston Bruins won the Presidents' Trophy by leading the NHL with 117 points. Another number shows just how much, or little, that means.
"I heard about 40 percent of the series are upsets in the first round," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "You have teams that have high expectations. You have teams that have nothing to lose and everything to gain. So that certainly makes that first round a challenge."
A glance at the past three seasons should convince the Bruins not to take a first-round opponent lightly. They had the better seed in each of those series, but played the full seven games in all of them including a loss to Washington in 2012.
"We certainly learned from all those Game 7s that we've had to go through in the first round that it is important to be on top of your game at the end of the year and not limp in to the playoffs," Julien said, "which I thought we did at times after we solidified our playoff spot."
Another lesson could keep the Bruins from losing focus. They scored the third-most goals in the NHL this season, but Pittsburgh led the league a year earlier then got just two goals in a four-game sweep at the hands of Boston in the Eastern Conference final.
"I feel comfortable with the fact that we have some depth at scoring this year, a little bit more than we did last year," Julien said. "We really limited Pittsburgh to very few goals with a lot of goal scorers there. So, again, nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs. You've got to work for your goals. Just because you got them during the season doesn't mean you're necessarily going to get them automatically in the playoffs."
There is no hockey-stat-backed way that the Red Wings should prevail 4 games out of 7 against the Beasts of the East.
But this Red Wings team has an edge like nothing I've seen before.
Does that mean a brave showing amidst a "learning" year for the next generation while the Wings' management waits for the cap to go up so that it can reinforce the defense and find out whether a few more of those Calder Cup Championship-defending Griffins can "steal jobs" next fall?
Does that mean a good five or six or seven games before bowing out against a team that's supposedly superior in every aspect, or does it mean that we're about to see one of the better upsets of the last decade?
Game 1, series A, playoff game 2013-03-011-1.
Referees Francis Charron (6) & Paul Devorski (10) Linesmen Derek Amell (75) & Darren Gibbs (66)
Supervisor Kris King
Video Judge Kyle Messier
Ntl. Anthem Rene Rancourt
Standby Official Chris Lee (28)
I'd imagine that puck drop won't be until 7:45-ish due to whatever pre-game spiel the Bruins will hold.
Let's drop the puck and see what happens, who gets hurt and who rises to the top.
Tell your Bruins friends that you're sorry for what you're about to say to them regarding their team and town for the next two weeks, and expect to hear the same.
The team "bromance" is off. It's time for the hate to begin. It should be terrifying, infuriating, maddening and a little bit fun.
The Wings pose no threat to the Bruins, right?
Quickie update: Per Fox Sports Detroit's Dana Wakiji:
[Playoff games aren't played on paper, and Wings coach Mike Babcock is oozing confidence.
"I think we're complete," he said. "I think we're way better than people think. I think we're a hard out."
The development of the young Wings during the regular season has given Babcock this confidence.
"I think we're actually a harder team than we've ever been since I've been here," Babcock said. "I think we have the ability to play heavy. We have some smaller-type players that have the ability to be physical. What sets them (the Bruins) aside from anyone else is (Milan) Lucic and (Zdeno) Chara. They have them, we don't. We have a lot of big bodies as well."...
"The reality is, you have to play well," Babcock said. "If you look at it, in their shoes, they've got to believe they're in the driver's seat. We believe we're going to be a tough out, so something's got to give. It'll be fun."
Also, regarding Kronwall:
"Since I've been here, this team has mostly been a lead-by-example kind of team," Helm said. "Kronner has been more vocal since the first time that I've been here. He's just a steady guy on the back end that keeps everybody calm and composed."
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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.