The Detroit Red Wings entered these playoffs looking shaky. At one point in the season, they were right behind Vancouver in the race for the top seed. They then finished the season by losing 10 of their final 23 games. That record not only kept them from that top spot, but it also allowed San Jose to overtake them for the second seed.
To make matters worse they all of a sudden were having trouble winning at home as well. A 4-8 home finish meant that they had five more road wins than home this season.
One final dose of bad news hit last weekend of the season when Henrik Zetterberg went down with an injury. Initial reports were sketchy, but it did not look good and he would end up missing the entire first round series.
Despite all of this, the Wings came out strong to start the playoffs. They were the only team to earn a sweep in the first round.
What a difference a week makes as they now look poised for long playoff run. Here are the seven reasons why they will win the Stanley Cup this year.
Datsyuk had a great series. When a star player such as Zetterberg goes down with injury, you expect other players, especially the star players, to rise up. Datsyuk did just that. He scored two goals and had four assists in the four games of the series. He finished with a plus-six rating that is tied for the league lead. He was all over the ice doing everything the team needed to win each game. Beyond being an offensive force he also finished tied for third on team in block shots.
Whether it is his no-look passes, between-the-leg slap shots or great puck-stealing ability, Datsyuk is a beast on the ice. His play can lead the Wings far in these playoffs.
The Wings entered these playoffs without their leading points scorer, Henrik Zetterberg. Niklas Kronwall came back from injury just in time to start the series. Their season leader in goals, Johan Franzen, took a face-first run into the boards and injured an ankle which forced him to sit out Game 4.
They will now have at least a week off to get Zetterberg and Franzen back healthy. In addition, players such Kronwall and others will have time to rest the normal bumps and bruises that pile up come this time of year.
Additionally, Chris Osgood is racing to come back from injury and surgery. While Howard has played well, the fear of injury is always there. A healthy Osgood would quell the nervousness of only having Joey “drive thru” Macdonald as the backup goalie.
While there is always a debate between rest and getting rusty from a long layoff, it appears that rest is what this team needs right now. A fully healthy Red Wings team is one that no other team wants to face in the playoffs.
The Red Wings lead the playoffs with 4.5 goals a game. They did not pad this with one huge game either. They scored four goals in three of the games and six in the final game. Not only did an impressive 16 of 19 players score a point in the series, but 13 of them had at least two points. The scoring came from everywhere as 13 different players netted a goal. Only Justin Abdelkader ended the series with a negative plus/minus rating at minus one.
The team rolls with four lines more than any other team. With all the playing time, their leading player in ice time per game ranks only 43rd in the league for the playoffs.
This depth not only makes it difficult for the opposition to key on any one player, but it also means that players are fresher later in the game. Also as seen by how well they played without Zetterberg and Franzen, their depth will allow them to better handle any injuries that may happen down the road.
Howard entered the playoffs with the immense pressure of Hockeytown upon him. After a good first season with the team, his stats slid down this year. It wasn’t a bad season by any means, but not as good as last season and bouts with inconsistent play had many wondering if he could lead the team to a long playoff run.
Last season he led the team to a seven-game first-round series win, before falling to the Sharks in five games in round two. He played much better in this year’s first-round series in helping the team sweep the Coyotes in the first round. While winning one series isn’t enough, having a great start to the playoffs will quickly ease the nerves.
In Game 1 of the series, the Wings had a rough start as fell behind 1-0 early. They then had to fight off four power plays, including a long five on three in the first period. Howard stood tall in goal to keep the Wings in the game and set a strong tone for the rest of the series. That first period was the only time that the Wings trailed after a period in the series.
Helm is an unsung hero of this team. It would be great if he were to remain a secret, but with each passing game, more people notice his outstanding play. His big hits and puck stealing lead to many big plays. He ended the series with three points and a plus-3 rating.
His value on the penalty kill is crucial. He is one of the fastest skaters in the league. That speed allows him to steal many pucks. While he still needs to improve on finishing his short-handed chances, the fact that he is getting them is good. Teams on the power play have to be wary of him, which forces them to hold back a little while on the power play.
Who is leading the team in ice time? Most would answer Nick Lidstrom, however for the first time in over 12 years another defenseman is leading the team. Niklas Kronwall and his 22:24 minutes of ice time per game are currently leading the team.
His valuable contributions have him covering all facets of the game. He serves time during even strength, power play and penalty kill. His plus-six rating is tied for the league lead. Beyond leading the team in minutes, he is also first in hits and blocked shots.
An added benefit in having another defenseman step up so strongly is that Lidstrom doesn’t have to log the heavy minutes. At 41, Lidstrom is still one of the best in the game, and the ability to keep him fresh will help the team the deeper they go into the playoffs.
The President Cup-winning Canucks entered the playoffs as the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. They were impressive during the regular season in leading in the league in goals scored, goals against and power play while being tied for second in penalty killing.
All seemed to be going as planned as they won the first three games of their series against Chicago, then Game 4 happened. The Blackhawks scored seven goals on the Canucks. Now one bad game does not necessarily mean that it is time to panic, after all the Canucks would be heading home for Game 5. One would think that the Canucks would come out strong in that game. Instead they fell flat and lost 5-0.
They lost Game 6 and now face a do-or-die Game 7. Even if they win, the dominant mystique that they had entering the playoffs is gone. The last three games have showed that the dominating offense is stoppable and the goalie Roberto Luongo is beatable.
Luongo’s goals against jumped to 3.67 after Game 5. He was even benched for Game 6 and only came in after new starter Cory Schneider went down with an injury in the third period. Luongo ended up giving up the game-winning goal in overtime.
Luongo is under intense pressure to come through for his team this year. These last three games will play in the back of Luongo’s mind for as long as the Canucks keep playing this year. Of course, that assumes that he will still be the starter. If not, then the team would be forced to go with the rookie Schneider. While he had a good year, he will not strike fear in any opposing team.