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Red Wings-Coyotes Game 4 notebooks: on ‘depth’ forwards, ‘3rd pair’ defensemen and indecisive Dick

The Detroit Red Wings advanced to the second round of the playoffs via a 6-3 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes which included two goals from Patrick Eaves, two assists from Valtteri Filppula, an assist from Jiri Hudler and yet another sterling performance from Darren Helm, but those four forwards are still technically “depth” players given that they’ve tended to rotate in and out of the Wings’ “top nine” depending on the team’s injury situation.

Wings coach Mike Babcock has begun to suggest that, at least in the cases of Helm and Eaves, the Red Wings can’t call the pair “fourth liners,” as he told the Free Press’s Helene St. James:

“Helm is an elite player, probably not a fourth-line player,” coach Mike Babcock said. “I don’t know if we have a fourth line, we just play our guys. Helmer and Eaves and (Kris) Draper do things right and they do it right shift after shift after shift. And so when the game is not going your way, they do things right and they get everything on balance. The other thing they do is, they hunt down the other team’s D. All you have to do is go back a few times with Helmer on your back and anybody who’s going back for pucks doesn’t like doing that very often. He’s just so fast and he plays heavy. He’s big in the fact that he’s a thick guy and he makes you pay. I just think he’s a real good player for us. He’s gotten better and better as time’s gone on.”

The Wings showed all series the benefit of having so many versatile players available. During Game 4, Babcock moved Filppula off the third line for part of the game to get a more favorable match-up, but with both Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg (knee) expected to be ready for round 2, the Wings have the option to put Filppula back with Jiri Hudler and Drew Miller, who synced almost immediately after being put together when the playoffs began.

Miller is the sort of utility forward who can fit anywhere, Filppula’s outstanding passing skills are a boon for any winger, and Hudler again is showing why the Wings are so high on him, displaying the instincts of a natural scorer.

“That’s what he gets paid for, and that’s his skill set,” coach Mike Babcock said of Miller on Wednesday morning at Jobing.com Arena. “He can really make plays, and he’s a competitive guy, but he can see it and slow it down. ... They’ve got a little chemistry.”

• The Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan just happened to speak to Miller about rotating back into the Wings’ lineup and contributing to the team’s playoff cause prior to Game 4…

“This time of year you need contributions from everybody,” said Miller, who had 10 goals in 67 games during the regular season. “All year, the third and fourth lines have worked to generate an offensive zone presence and take the body. Chipping in offensively (during the playoffs) is a bonus.”

At 6-foot-2 and 178 pounds, Miller isn’t physically imposing, nor is he the strongest or fastest player in the league. But Miller, who comes from a hockey family in East Lansing (his brother Ryan is the Sabres goaltender), has instincts and hockey know-how that are hard to teach.

“He knows how to play,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “Talent isn’t an issue. The knock has been his size but he’s been effective for us and he continues to do good things.”

Still, it wasn’t easy being part of a rotation this season.

“Definitely it was tough but you learn a lot about yourself,” Miller said. “You battle through it and you come back and play and give your best effort the next game when it is your chance. You play and make the most of every opportunity.”

• And as the Winnpeg Sun’s Paul Friesen was in Phoenix to talk to Helm, a native of St. Andrews, Manitoba and the Selkirk Fishermen, about his evolution into a player who’s no longer just a grinder:

“It was a fun year,” he said. “It was nice to get the 82-game season. It’s a good accomplishment.”
...
“He’s really coming into his own,” Draper said. “He’s just going to continue to get better in this league. When you’ve got great speed, you continue to get more confidence, you’re going to score more goals, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.”

Draper willingly admits that he’s essentially mentoring his replacement…

“We sit beside each other way too much,” Draper said. “But we have fun with it. We’ve built a solid relationship. It’s exciting to see where he’s going.”

One of the things Helm says he’s learned this year is to keep things on an even keel, whether he’s scoring or not, whether the team’s winning or not.

“It’s been kind of a roller-coaster year, so you try to keep it as straight as possible,” he said. “That’s the thing I tried to do a lot better this year. It worked out not too bad.”

And it’s not just Draper who appreciates what Helm brings to the team:

“He’s a threat all the time he’s out there with his speed, especially on the penalty kill,” Wings defenceman Niklas Lidstrom said. “He’s just getting better and better for us. He looks like he feels comfortable with his role on the team, too.”

• Speaking of “defence,” Friesen talked to both Draper and Lidstrom about the Wings’ ability to tighten things up over the course of their first three (now four) playoff games...

“We’re not giving up as many scoring chances as we did last year,” perennial Norris Trophy candidate Nicklas Lidstrom of the Wings said before Game 4 of the Western Conference series against Phoenix. “We didn’t play as well defensively during the regular season. But we’ve tightened things up now in the playoffs.”

And they have begun to erase the memory of a team that ranked 23rd in goals against going into the Stanley Cup chase.

“You need to be that this time of year,” Detroit forward Kris Draper said. “There are no excuses for what went on during the regular season. We definitely weren’t as good in our own end as we should have been. Right now we’re a focused team, we’re playing desperate hockey and we’re doing a lot of good things in the neutral zone.”

• And part of the Wings’ ability to get rolling defensively has involved the fact that, for the first time since perhaps November, they can roll three defensive pairs deemed worthy of “top four” status. Their third pair consists of Niklas Kronwall, who’s spelled Nicklas Lidstrom relatively regularly (by design) late in games, and Ruslan Salei, who the Detroit News’s Ted Kulfan confirms is as gruff and grumpy with the media as he is a spare, safe, stay-at-home defenseman on the ice:

“I don’t think we’re doing anything differently than what we had been doing,” Salei said. “Obviously playing with Kroner is giving me more opportunity on the ice, I would say. I just do my part, accept my role on this team.”

It’s not a glamorous role. Salei’s job is to deny opposing teams a chance to score. Still, it’s an important role. And one Salei has had his entire 14-year career.

“I’m fine with it,” he said of the lack of notoriety. “I’m comfortable with it. I don’t need any spotlights, or attention from the media. I’m fine with that. There is a lot more famous guys on this team. There are Hall of Famers. I do what I do and I’m fine with that.”
...
But, Salei nearly didn’t get the opportunity to show those qualities during the postseason. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock opened the competition for the sixth and final defensive spot between Salei and Jakub Kindl shortly before the end of the regular season. Salei’s effectiveness dipped the second half, partly due to the time spent in California to be with his pregnant wife (the couple had a girl in March). But Babcock, who coached Salei when both were in Anaheim in 2002, is beginning to see a similar player these days.

“It’s the fountain of youth,” said Babcock, a phrase he uses often regarding how veteran players are re-energized when the playoffs begin. “I know how competitive he is.

That being said, Salei issued a, well, let’s call it Salei-ish response to questions about battling with Kindl for a spot on the team’s playoff roster:

“It’s in the past and I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “It’s the coach’s job to get the best out of the players and the player’s job to do the best they can to help the team win and that’s what we’re doing. I guess (the competition) served its purpose.”

• If you didn’t notice, toward the end of the season, when both Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg missed time with injuries, the Wings stuck an alternate captain’s “A” on Niklas Kronwall’s jersey (or an “alternate captain’s ‘A’ on Niklas Kronwall’s sweater,” depending on your terminology preferences), and the Free Press’s Helene St. James found that Kronwall earned a de-facto promotion:

“I think he took a huge step this year,” forward Todd Bertuzzi said. “I think as far as leadership, he’s gotten a lot more respect. Guys listen to him. He’s got an opinion, and his opinion is usually a good one. He’s a guy who’ll speak up, and that’s what you need from guys. He’s kind of like the second coming after whenever Nick decides to move on. He’s a perfect guy to come in and fill that role.”
...
“Obviously Kronner is an elite player,” coach Mike Babcock said. “We play him in the three, or in the fourth or five-six-hole, but I mean really, with his age, he’s probably our best guy in lots of ways.”

Kronwall finished the Coyotes series leading the team with 13 hits and in average minutes played at 22:24, and second with eight blocked shots. He had two assists in Game 3. That’s the stuff the Wings have come to expect from him, though. He can be used against opposing top lines. He’s a point man on the second power-play unit, and a go-to guy on the penalty kill, especially when the Wings are down two skaters. He keeps opponents on their toes because they never know when he might upend them with a bone-rattling hit. It’s only because his teammates include Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski that Kronwall is considered the No. 3 D-man on the team, because to the Wings, Kronwall is a guy who does it all.
...
Kronwall’s partner, Salei, said Kronwall “has made me a better player.” His coach, Babcock, said Kronwall “is the guy in our organization that has to come to the forefront here. He is capable of playing the most minutes—power play, penalty kill, even strength—can be the most active. He’s a physical guy who can really make plays. We think he’s an elite player. He’ll get more opportunity as his career goes on here, when Nick and Rafi decide to hang things up, offensively, but in the meantime he’s been excellent for us. He’s a leader on our team, he’s vocal on the bench. He’s an important guy for us.”
...
“He’s taken a little more responsibility in that area, saying what needs to be said on the bench,” former partner Brad Stuart said. “If we’re falling asleep a little bit on the bench, he’ll speak up and get us going. It’s good to see.”

Kronwall suggests that he’s still a player in progress, and that’s true, but given his injury history, it shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise that someone who’s 30 is just coming into their prime.

• MLive’s Ansar Khan profiled both Salei and Helm in his game-day notebook, but he also pointed out that the Wings’ “elder statesman” made a very conscious decision to not concern himself with Phoenix Coyotes’ decision to attempt to target #5 physically, and I think it’s a safe bet to suggest that Lidstrom’s teammates took note of his reaction.

Lidstrom’s pretty decent at avoiding hits, but there’s also a sort of tacit awareness around the league that Lidstrom is just one of those players that you’re not supposed to hit, so the Wings could have very easily chosen to go after Shane Doan and Taylor Pyatt after they placed bullseyes on Lidstrom’s back in Game 3:

“It happens every year. I’m not surprised by it,” Lidstrom said. “That’s just the way playoff hockey is. They try to go after certain guys, try to hit and finish checks and be physical. That’s why you’re so excited about playing in the playoffs.”

Lidstrom said the key to responding to physical play is to not be forced into mistakes.

“Stay poised, don’t throw the puck away unless you have to,” Lidstrom said. “You can make plays when they’re coming after you hard. You can make plays around them and find openings that way that result in three-on-twos or two-on-ones.”

• Of Game 4-related note from DetroitRedWings.com’s Bill Roose:

Eight months ago, the Red Wings signed center Mike Modano to a one-year contract for his experience and battle-tested toughness in the playoffs. It didn’t take long Wednesday for the 40-year-old Livonia, Mich., native to fulfill the team’s original desire to bring him into the fold last summer.

Modano was inserted into the lineup for Game 4 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, replacing forward Johan Franzen who wasn’t able to go. Franzen (lower body injury) –injured in Game 2 – skated in Wednesday’s pre-game warm-up. However, at one point he headed back to the team bench where he had a brief conversation with the team’s training staff.

The decision was then made to insert Modano into the lineup, where he made his playoff debut for the Red Wings in their series-clinching 6-3 win over the Coyotes. Wednesday’s game was his first playoff game in three years, and his 175th career postseason game.

Modano, who missed 41 games of the regular-season with a wrist injury that required surgery, helped the Wings off to another quick start against the Coyotes. His assist on Tomas Holmstrom’s goal gave Detroit a 1-0 lead on the seventh shift of the game. While Holmstrom’s goal will be widely remembered for the incredible no-look pass from Pavel Datsyuk that set-up Holmstrom, it was good to see Modano make an immediate impact.

• Of broadcast-related note, from the Detroit Free Press’s Steve Schrader:

• Henrik Zetterberg, asked for an injury report on Fox Sports Detroit: “I’m feeling a little better. It’s getting a little bit better day by day. ... Hopefully get back soon.”

• Kevin Weekes, CBC, on how all the scouting reports giving the goaltending edge to Phoenix played out in the first three games: “Somebody forgot to tell Jimmy Howard that. ... Jimmy Howard’s winning this goaltending matchup hands-down so far.”
...
• Red Wings tickets for the second round go on sale at noon Friday at the usual places.

• The Hockey News dished a bit on Game 4’s result:

GAME 4: RED WINGS 6, COYOTES 3 – RED WINGS WIN SERIES 4-0

THN’s Take: The Coyotes fell behind early again, but this time showed some immediate bounce back to take a 2-1 lead halfway through the first and resume control 3-2 early in the second after Detroit tied it late in the first. But from then on the Detroit forecheck was in full force, causing turnovers and bad plays by the frustrated Coyotes defensemen. Patrick Eaves and Darren Helm were giving the Yotes fits from the fourth line and was the type of fight Phoenix never quite found in this series. Coyotes captain Shane Doan was dejected in a post-game TV interview and clearly wasn’t pleased with the lack of fight in his team. The Wings started pulling away in the final six minutes of the third and there was a cloud of sadness hanging over the game as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Will the Coyotes be in Phoenix next season? If not, their fans sang them out with a prideful “Let’s Go Coyotes” chant.

Three Stars
1. Dan Cleary – If this is the historic game it felt like, Cleary scored the game-winning goal that sealed the Coyotes fate, adding two assists and five shots along the way.

2. Shane Doan – You really had to feel for the captain, who scored his team’s second goal of the game to give them their first lead. Doan did everything he could to keep his team alive, taking three shots and registering 11 hits in 22:39 of ice time.

3. Valtteri Filppula – Assists on the two dagger goals that put this series to rest, Filppula was heavy on forechecking and was a plus-2 with 20:47 of ice time.

The Black Hole
Ilya Bryzgalov – Once again it’s the netminder who was supposed to be the MVP. Bryzgalov allowed at least four goals in each game this series and the game-winner in Game 4 was a bad angle shot. Bryzgalov had little fight all series long and hindered more than helped. How much will his subpar post-season affect his UFA value?

• In Swedish, part 1: Nicklas Lidstrom spoke to Aftonbladet’s Per Bjurman after the game, and aside from tossing off the usual, “The fourth game is the hardest one to win” cliche, he suggested that the Wings’ third-period effort was what delivered them an express ticket to the second round, and he was very proud of the fact that 13 different players scored goals during a series in which the Wings played without Henrik Zetterberg and, on Wednesday, Johan Franzen;

• In Swedish, part 2: I don’t need to give you the full translation of this one to tell you the gist of it: Wings prospect Dick Axelsson has a big mouth, and prior to the Swedish Eliteserien final, he stated that he’d terminate his contract with Farjestads BK and either play for the Red Wings, a Swiss team or a KHL team next season, insisting that he wouldn’t object to playing in the AHL if necessary, despite the fact that he left the Griffins in late 2009 because he wasn’t happy there.

This morning, Axelsson tells Aftonbladet’s Mats Wennerholm that he’s no longer certain that he’s heading back to Detroit, despite the fact that the Wings are going to offer him a contract—which allows them to retain his rights, regardless of whether he accepts the deal.

You could read this and say, “Gee, he sounds really concerned,” but I might suggest that he’s not blown away by the Wings’ contract offer—and Wennerholm’s giving Axelsson a tabloid paper’s pulpit with which to speak very purposefully:

Dick Axelsson’s unsure of his future

Dick Axelsson’s flight back to Detroit might be about to collapse.

In all likelihood, according to him.

“Yes, they don’t seem to be especially interested anymore. So I don’t know what happens now,” he says.

There have been many trips around the fact that Dick Axelsson, after winning the Swedish Eliteserien gold with Farjestad on Saturday, said that it was his last game with the club.

Everybody assumed that Dick would return to Detroit in the NHL.

“But now I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything from them, so everything’s up in the air right now. If that’s the case, they may as well trade me to another NHL team,” he says.

[So you’re going to the] KHL, then?

“Well, I don’t think I’m really ready to do that yet.”

So could you stay with Farjestad?

“I don’t know. Every option’s open right now. I really don’t know what I want, or what should happen.”

Dick Axelsson left Detroit’s AHL team, the Grand Rapids Griffins, in the middle of the previous season, and was loaned out to Farjestad. Last winter, he belonged to
So you can be left in Färjestad?

“I don’t know. Everything seems to open right now. I do not really know what I want, or what happens.”

Dick Axelsson left Detroit’s AHL affiliate Grand Rapids in the middle of the season last year and was loaned out to Färjestad.

This winter, he played for the Varmland County team [Farjestad].

But if he wants to go back to the NHL, Detroit’s the only alternative. When he left the club, under the NHL’s rules, his rights became Detroit’s until the 2012/2013 season.

Do you kind of get the feeling why the Wings and Hakan Andersson suggest that Axelsson’s not mature enough to come over to the NHL yet? He’s freaking out because contract negotiations aren’t going well, and because he was a key contributor for the SEL’s champion team, he gets front-page status by suggesting that he “may as well” be traded. He’s still got a gigantic ego and is all about Dick, and the Wings don’t want to have to deal with these kinds of, “I’m going to run to the press and blurt something out” ego trips whenever something goes wrong.

• Finally, in news of more mature prospects, the Port Huron Times-Herald’s Paul Costanzo reports that the State of Michigan’s best squirt hockey players will take part in the Brick Invitational Super Novice Hockey Tournament in Edmonton from July 3-10 under the Red Wings name, and two youngsters from Port Huron will take part in the festivities.

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Comments

AndrewFromAnnArbor's avatar

“Yes, they don’t seem to be especially interested anymore. So I don’t know what happens now,” he says.

‘Intresse’ är en dubbelriktad gata, grabben.

Jesus, he makes LeBron James look level-headed and grounded.

Posted by AndrewFromAnnArbor from Fortress Europe on 04/21/11 at 10:34 AM ET

sjketcheson's avatar

Thanks George! Now I imagine you get a bit of breathing room as well between series here. Your posts are impressive, and overwhelmingly good. My gf thinks I read this blog (KK in general, A2Y and TMR in particular) religiously, and she’s right!

Cheers

Posted by sjketcheson from the floor of the Hasek on 04/21/11 at 10:52 AM ET

Inglewood Jack's avatar

Babcock would describe the blog as “dominant.”

Posted by Inglewood Jack from first in line for curly fries on 04/21/11 at 11:02 AM ET

Nathan's avatar

He’s still got a gigantic ego and is all about Dick…

Oh man, the importance capitalization on the letter “D” has in this sentence…

Posted by Nathan from the scoresheet! on 04/21/11 at 11:17 AM ET

AndrewFromAnnArbor's avatar

Oh man, the importance capitalization on the letter “D” has in this sentence…

You don’t know the half of it, Nathan.  The puckbunnies of FBK, why, they do love them some Dick.

Posted by AndrewFromAnnArbor from Fortress Europe on 04/21/11 at 12:36 PM ET

SYF's avatar

He’s still got a gigantic ego and is all about Dick…

Oh man, the importance capitalization on the letter “D” has in this sentence…

Posted by Nathan from the scoresheet! on 04/21/11 at 09:17 AM ET

Win.

Posted by SYF from Zata's Epic Viking Beard on 04/21/11 at 04:17 PM ET

Avatar

Posted by Richard on 04/21/11 at 06:05 PM ET

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About The Malik Report

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.