The Malik Report
by George Malik on 03/22/11 at 10:02 PM ET
As the Vancouver Canucks’ press corps has played up, “The Canucks are just like the 2008 Red Wings” comparisons since, um, December, I expected the Canucks’ press to ham it up ahead of Wednesday night’s tilt (7:30 PM, Versus/TSN/Fox Sports Detroit/WXYT), but during Mike Babcock’s off-day presser, he was essentially told by the Vancouver Province’s Ben Kuzma that, by declaring Johan Franzen, Pavel Datsyuk, Jiri Hudler and Todd Bertuzzi out for Wednesday night’s game (the Wings have at least called up Jan Mursak now that Chris Osgood’s healthy), the Wings, who are eight points behind Vancouver, have “conceded” the Western Conference title. Babcock happened to disagree with Kuzma’s suggestion, as the journalist in question notes in his pre-pre-game set-up:
“I don’t think we’ve conceded anything,” said Babcock. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve just tried to win every day. You’d like to finish as high as you can. The higher the better, and the better you feel about yourself, but that doesn’t guarantee anything. We’ve tried it all different ways and whichever way you do it, you embrace it.”
And here comes the Canucks’ defiance/we’re gonna be fine without Manny Malhotra/Alex Edler/Andrew Alberts/Tanner Glass rebuttal:
“Nobody in our group is going to be judged by what we’ve done in the regular season we’re going to be judged by what we do in the playoffs,” said coach Alain Vigneault. “We’re aware of that and it doesn’t matter what people believe. It’s what those guys in the dressing room believe and I can tell you there’s a lot of confidence. This is a very motivated group.”
So, don’t be surprised if the Canucks and Wings put on another show in their season-series finale. The Wings lead the series 2-1-0, but two encounters were settled by a shootout and overtime, and the other was a two-goal win by the Canucks. They dropped a wild 5-4 overtime decision here on Dec. 22 in which Datsyuk suffered a broken hand in the first period, Franzen had nine shots, Ryan Kesler three assists, six hits and four shots and Roberto Luongo finished with 40 saves. And while the cast of characters will be different Wednesday, these two franchises have much more in common than they did even a few years ago. The Canucks have evolved in an attempt to match the Wings’ resolve to be good every year, to not lean on injuries like a crutch while drafting and developing talent.
“They’re definitely one of the elite teams and we’ve taken areas of their game and modeled ourselves around them,” said defenceman Kevin Bieksa, who’s expected to return after missing 15 games with a foot fracture. “Samuelsson came in and we got a little bit of his leadership and info and how they [Wings] go about their business. The stuff after the whistles we’ve got a lot better at and we’re a lot smarter. I wouldn’t say we play exactly like them. We’re more physical and they maybe have more skill, but we make up for it with hard work.”
The Wings are legendary for unearthing European talent. They drafted Tomas Holmstrom in the 10th round, Henrik Zetterberg in the seventh and Datsyuk in the sixth round. Then again, the Canucks have been drafting better, developing talent and doing the spade work to find college free agents such as Chris Tanev.
“They [Wings] are the tops in the league because they’ve taken everything into consideration,” added Bieksa. “They have these guys who come out of nowhere and turn into great players and they just plug them in. We’ve done a lot better job of that lately. Tanev relatively came out of nowhere and he’s not the only one. We’ve definitely taken strides in that area.”
Both Kuzma and the Vancouver Sun’s Brad Ziemer played up another cliche we’re sure to hear repeated—that Ryan Kesler’s succeed Mike Modano as the game’s preeminent American-born player—but as that comparison doesn’t really matter to me, I’d prefer to focus on what Modano had to say to Kuzma about getting back into the swing of things as he’s battled his way through both an injury-marred season and the difficult transition an admittedly out-of-shape Modano had to make to simply catch up to the Wings’ levels of fitness and play:
“Not much meaningful has happened for me here, so I’m trying to get back in the flow of things and it took a while to get back up to speed,” admitted Modano, who has just three goals in 32 games this season and 560 in 1,491 career regular-season games. “When you feel the end is near, you’re trying to squeeze every little last drop out of you before it’s over. There are a lot of expectations to win and be successful and you want to contribute and be a meaningful piece. Being part of the history here is contagious.”
Modano’s value is measured by more than goals. By simply being in the right place at the right time, Modano was convinced by coach Mike Babcock that the goals will come. And with Pavel Datsyuk (lower body), Johan Franzen (groin), Juri Hudler (shoulder) and now Todd Bertuzzi (back spasms) sidelined, Modano relished 16:13 of playing time Monday, his second highest of the season.
“I thought he had his best game and was engaging,” said Babcock. “The big thing in the playoffs is that you’ve got to be able to play without the puck and commit, be patient and you’ll get all the chances you need. We’ve moved him to the wall with [Valtteri] Filppula to give him less responsiblilty defensively, but to also get him skating and moving. I found over they years the playoffs are like the fountain of youth.”
The season could end much better than it started for Modano. He hinted at retirement and was then lured by a chance to win his second Stanley Cup and end a Hall of Fame career on the right note. Then came camp and the struggles and some second-guessing.
“I was well behind and not in great shape at camp with the quickness of the team,” admitted Modano. “But it’s been much more than I ever thought. I was obviously hesitant. You don’t know what to expect and change kind of scares people into not doing it. You get into a comfortable situation like I was in Dallas and you hate to leave, but opportunities like this don’t come around too often. It’s a once-in-a lifetime chance and if I pass it up, I’ll probably kick myself two or three years down the road.”
Modano continued while speaking to the Vancouver Sun’s Brad Ziemer, discussing the fact that he’s found it particularly difficult to get back to “normal”:
“It’s not like riding a bike anymore,” he says, smiling. “It’s not that easy anymore.”
“I was really obviously hesitant because you didn’t really know what to expect,” Modano says of the move to Detroit from Dallas. “Change seems to scare people into not doing it. You get into a comfortable situation like I was in Dallas and you hate to leave, you miss the fans and things, but opportunities don’t come along like this too often to play with some world-class guys, great coaches, great GM, owners, I mean it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I figured if I passed it up, I’d kick myself two or three years down the road if I didn’t take advantage of it.”
That’s not to say it has been a storybook season for Modano, who suffered a serious wrist laceration back in late November. He finally returned to the Detroit lineup late last month and on Monday night scored his first goal since returning as he helped the Wings recover from a 4-0 deficit and get a point in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He admitted his lack of offensive production was beginning to eat away at him.
“When you feel the end is near and you are trying to squeeze every last drop out of the year before it’s over, certainly here there are a lot of expectations to win and be successful,” he says. “So the opportunity is there and you want to come in and contribute a little bit and feel like you are a meaningful piece to this team.”
Again, Babcock would argue that, regardless of Modano’s offensive production, he’s been more than “a little bit” of an important player for the Wings:
“I thought he had his best games his last couple; he was engaging,” says Babcock, who has Modano playing some on the wing. “We have moved him to the wall just to give him less responsibility defensively and also to get him skating and get him moving so he doesn’t have to think about those things. I found over the years the playoffs are like the fountain of youth. Sometimes at this time of year and the previous month the veteran players don’t have a lot in the tank and then suddenly the playoffs start and they have got a ton in the tank.”
As for the Wings’ personnel issues, I stuck this in the bottom of my Tuesday afternoon update post, so it’s worth repeating that Red Wings GM Ken Holland suggested that Chris Osgood’s at least healthy enough to back up Jimmy Howard tomorrow, allowing the Wings, as he told the Free Press’s George Sipple, to make the decision to demote Joey MacDonald to Grand Rapids and recall Jan Mursak:
Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said tonight that goalie Chris Osgood will be Jimmy Howard’s backup Wednesday night against the Vancouver Canucks. Osgood practiced today, then met with the team’s training staff and Holland.
Osgood “had two hard practices and then felt soreness, so we backed him off,” Holland said of last week’s episode. “We’re trying all over again. He rarely gets a full practice, because we’re, obviously, trying to keep Joey MacDonald sharp as well.”
As for the injured forwards, Holland said he anticipates having Johan Franzen (groin) available for Saturday’s home game against the Maple Leafs, and possibly Todd Bertuzzi (upper body), too.
“We don’t think it’s anything significant,” Holland said of Bertuzzi’s injury. “It’s something he’s been playing through the last little while, and it’s gotten to a point where he thinks it is affecting his ability to play, and he needs some time to get it healthy. Obviously, the earliest he’s going to play is Saturday. We’re pretty optimistic that Franzen will play on Saturday. Beyond Franzen, everyone else is day-to-day and we’ll see how the week plays out with them, healthwise.”
Update 8:20 PM: Shoot me now, via Kuzma:
It’s a sure sign the Vancouver Canucks have moved up the hockey hierarchy when Nicklas Lidstrom starts talking about a game against them being a measuring stick for the Detroit Red Wings. Didn’t it used to be the other way around? Lidstrom, the classy Red Wings captain, on Tuesday heaped plenty of praise on the Canucks and while he didn’t quite outright concede the Western Conference top seed to Vancouver, it didn’t require much reading between the lines to conclude he and the Wings know the Canucks likely can’t be caught.
“We are eight points behind them so we have a chance,” Lidstrom said after the Wings practised at Joe Louis Arena. “But I think it’s more of a measuring stick to play againt the top team in the league right now. Looking at their record, looking at their speciality teams, they are tops in most categories. That’s a team you kind of want to measure yourself against. . .It will be a good test for us.”
Another sign the Red Wings think the race may be over is the fact that Detroit won’t dress four key forwards tonight - players coach Mike Babcock acknowledged would all be playing if this was a playoff game.
“They’d be playing,” Babcock said. “I always tell the guys once the playoffs start I’m the team doctor, but until then we have people to make those professional decisions.”
As for finishing second, after what Kuzma calls an “obligatory denial” regarding the Wings giving up the conference to their supposed successors…
“A couple of years we won the Presidents Trophy, a couple of years we were just short of it,” Babcock said. “You’d like to finish as high as you can. I think it’s important if you can have home-ice advantage. I really believe even though we have played better on the road this year than we have at home I think it’s a benefit at playoff time. So the higher you can finish the better you are and the better you feel about yourself going in. Now that doesn’t guarantee you anything. We have gone in feeling like we’re not playing very well and played great and we’ve gone in feeling like we are playing great and played bad and been out. We have tried it all different ways. Whichever way you get in that particular year you embrace and get on with winning.”
The Wings are focused on just playing as well as they can going into the playoffs, not heeding newspaper suggestions encouraging fans to name their players’ babies. Yeesh…
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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.