NHL 2010 Western Conference Final: A Testament To Red Wings' Excellence

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NHL 2010 Western Conference Final:  A Testament To Red Wings' Excellence
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery.

Now, when I whipped out this sentiment to my 2nd Grade teacher, Mrs. Ford, as an explanation as to why I wasn't "making fun of her" but simply, "flattering her", she didn't buy it.

Still, most would agree that this statement is largely true.

If so, the Detroit Red Wings can consider themselves one flattered hockey team.

As the Chicago Blackhawks (who have now thoroughly shed their "upstart" moniker) and San Jose Sharks are about to face each other in the Western Conference Finals, much will be written regarding the similarity that exists between the two elite clubs.

Both employ a skill-based, puck-possession style of play.

Both rely on a smart, mobile defense to generate offense and shutdown the opposition.

Both teams have players that are capable, if not adept, at playing a punishing physical game, but neither will be sacrificing skill for brawn in their effort to win the series.

Both teams have solid goal-tending, but not exactly what most would consider "top-tier" in the NHL.

Hmmm.

A puck-possession style, a mobile defense, a sprinkling of sandpaper and solid, though not quite stellar goal-tending?

That sounds an awful lot like Red Wings hockey.

The fact that both of these teams largely resemble the Red Wings in composition and style is anything but coincidence.

For years, the Chicago Blackhawks languished in the NHL's basement.

Hampered by a penny-wise, pound-foolish owner, the Hawks spent decades abstaining from big free-agent acquisitions and pinned their hopes for success on second-rate draft picks (Tyler Arnason or Kyle Calder anyone?).

From 1996 to 2008, the Blackhawks made the playoffs only twice, losing each time in the first round.

As the Hawks struggled through the barren wasteland of mediocrity, they had to witness their nemesis of over 80 years, the Detroit Red Wings, win four Stanley Cup championships over the same period of time.

If Chicago was ever to win another Stanley Cup, clearly, they were going to have to make drastic changes to their team.

Enter Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

Though the latter was drafted in 2006 and the former in 2007, both began their career with Blackhawks in the 2007-08 season.

At the time he was drafted, Kane was almost guaranteed a spot with the big-club by former Chicago GM, Dale Tallon.

Tallon also planned on 2007 being Toews' rookie season.  He hoped that his two young and promising draft picks would spark a new area of excellence in Chicago.

In fact, he was looking for excellence of a very specific kind.

When asked about his hope for the two rookies, Tallon said he was looking for them to become a "Datsyuk/Zetterberg type combination".

What he got was exactly that.

The two players quickly ensconced themselves among the best and most dynamic players in the league, propelling their team to the Western Conference Finals in just their second year in the league and now, leading a charge to the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 49 years.

The emergence of Kane and Toews instantly transformed the Blackhawks into a team not unlike their division rivals in Detroit: fast, skilled, and playing with the notion that, the best way to keep the puck out of your net, is to never let the other team touch it.

In contrast to the quick turnaround in Chicago, the San Jose Sharks have spent the better part of the last decade playing the role of "the best team that never wins anything".

From 1996 to 2008, the Sharks missed the playoffs only twice, once making it to the Western Conference Finals (2004), the rest of the time never making it past the second round.

With such star players as Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Rob Blake on their team, the Sharks didn't have a lack of talent, rather, a lack of identity to blame for their playoff failure.

San Jose GM Doug Wilson fired Coach Ron Wilson (no relation) in 2008 as he felt he no longer was effective in leading his team.

What he wanted was a coach with experience, a winning philosophy and the ability to take the Sharks to a Stanley Cup championship.

Wilson looked no further than the Detroit Red Wings to fill the bill as he hired Todd McLellan, fresh off a Stanley Cup victory as an assistant coach with the Red Wings, as his new head coach.

At the time, Wilson made no secret about the fact that all he wanted from McLellan was to turn the Sharks into the "West Coast Red Wings".

His first season behind the bench in San Jose, it looked as if McLellan had done just that as the Sharks emerged as one of the best puck-possession teams in the league and went on to capture the 2009 President's Trophy for the best regular season record.

However, the Red Wing-like championship that was supposed to follow never materialized as the Sharks were eliminated in the first-round of the 2009 playoffs by the Anaheim Ducks.

This season, the Sharks added a (heretofore lacking) bona fide sniper in Dany Heatly (can you say Brendan Shanahan to Detroit in 1996-97) and continued playing their system that relies on puck- possession and skill to win games.

The very system McLellan brought with him from Detroit and one he just employed to eliminate his former team from the playoffs last week.

In so doing, the Sharks served the Red Wings up a heaping dose of irony as they essentially played a better version of Red Wings hockey to beat them.

Now, they go on to face the aforementioned Blackhawks in what should be an epic battle between the best two teams remaining in these playoffs, and one that will likely lead to a Stanley Cup title for the victor.

That these two teams are so similarly matched should be no surprise— each were patterned after the same team.

Should one or the other go on to win the Stanley Cup this year, they'd owe at least a little doff of the cap to the Detroit Red Wings, without whom, a championship may not have been possible.

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