With a 2-0 series lead on the Colorado Avalanche entering Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals, it is sufficing to say that the Detroit Red Wings are hitting their stride. After a grueling 6 game series with the Nashville Predators, which saw a goaltender change after 3 1/2 games, the Red Wings are playing some of their best hockey of the season. Each year, for at least the last 17 consecutive years anyway, the playoffs for the Red Wings have been met with great uncertainty, including the years which they won the Cup ('97, '98, '02). After recent first round exits against Edmonton, Anaheim, and Calgary, this year's team appears poised to make a deep run similar to last year's run to the Western Conference Finals.
Some skeptics continue to argue that this team struggled with a far inferior Nashville Predators team, and were in the same position in that series that they are now against Colorado. They argue that the same thing could occur with a Colorado team that dominated their first round opponent, the Minnesota Wild. They also argue that if this team were to make it to the Conference Finals, they would struggle mightily with either of their potential opponents in the Dallas Stars or the San Jose Sharks.
Despite this skepticism, it is the belief of this writer that the Red Wings have an ideal path to the Cup Finals. How? Why? It begins and ends with goaltending. The Red Wings faced a hot goaltender (many of whom have doomed the Wings in the past...hello Giguere, Kipprusoff, and Roloson) in Dan Ellis. The Predators played the Wings tough in every game. They grinded out victories and seized opportunities when they had them. This is what you have to expect of teams who are severely over matched in skill level. Yet despite posting the best save percentage in the league, Dan Ellis couldn't carry his team to a first round upset. Meanwhile, Chris Osgood stepped in for a struggling Dominik Hasek in game 3, and has since posted 4 consecutive victories, 1 shutout, and a playoff best 1.09 GAA.
Jose Theodore, the key element of the Avalanche first round series upset of the Minnesota Wild, has looked far from good in each of the two games in Detroit. He was yanked after allowing 4 goals on 16 shots in game 1 and also pulled after allowing 4 goals on 20 shots in game 2. Peter Budaj has played well in place, but has had to make few quality saves in his appearances because the games were out of reach. Yet Avalanche head coach Joel Quenneville continues to stand behind Theodore. This indicates two things to the Red Wings: one, they can beat Theodore and two, Budaj is not the guy the Avalanche believe can lead them, regardless of how poor Theodore is playing.
The Dallas Stars and the San Jose Sharks are potential opponents of the Red Wings if they can grab two more wins against Colorado. By far, Dallas has looked like the better team, even if you look back to each first round series for the Stars and Sharks. The Sharks, considered the favorite in the West, even as the 2-seed, has looked mediocre at best thus far. Nabokov has looked average, and the team was pushed to 7 games against Calgary. The Sharks have dropped the first 2 games of their second round series with Dallas, and will expel a great deal of effort to simply get back into the series.
On the flip, Dallas has looked great, with Marty Turco playing his best hockey in years. However, if Dallas were to make it to the Conference Finals against Detroit, Turco will be tasked with beating a Detroit Red Wings team that he has struggled with for his entire career. Turco has managed only 2 wins (2-9-5) in 16 games against Detroit and while history is history, it has to play with his psyche.
Regardless of who Detroit is playing, or will play, the road looks smoother than in the past. This is not to say that there will not be obstacles or curves on the path to the Cup Finals, but it appears better than recent years. If Detroit can continue to get second and third line scoring (Franzen: 7 goals, 10 points & Hudler: 2 goals, 7 points) and they remain solid defensively (16 GA in 8 games) the Wings will find themselves in the Cup Finals for the first time since they won it all in 2002.