Saturday, March 19, 2011

How to Defeat the Detroit Red Wings

Oh, to be a Detroit Red Wings fan when the playoffs come.

Over the last several days I have written and tweeted the outstanding gentlemen of Puck Daddy Radio, Greg Wyshinski and Rob Pizzo. On Friday's episode of Puck Daddy Radio, the question the crew asked listeners was what team seems to consistently defeat your team. After writing a long diatribe about how the San Jose Sharks have taken the advantage in the rivalry with last year's 4-1 defeat, I decided there was a more notable rivalry. No, not the Colorado Avalanche. Since the days of Roy and the Statue of Liberty goal of '02, Colorado has struggled to compete the way their powerhouse team did in the late 90's and early millennium team has. The great rivals of the Detroit Red Wings are none other than...the Detroit Red Wings.

Before you roll your eyes and proclaim "Oh, you snobbish Wings fan," hear the argument first. The Red Wings have long proven their status as a model franchise in professional sports, and this article isn't going to rehash all of the years of success and the piles of trophies won. Beyond the accolades there is a glaringly obvious flaw to Detroit's twenty year playoff run.

The early exits. The upsets.

Yes, those years. Red Wings fans know them all very well. Since 1991 there have been five first round exits. 1991 wasn't exactly a year where Detroit was expected to compete with Hull and Oates of St. Louis, but it falls into the jurisdiction of the twenty year run. Realistically, Detroit has been favored to win their first round match ups in 1993, 1994, the Cup Finals in 1995,the first round in 2001 and again in 2003, in the second round of 2004, and the first round of 2006. Each one of these match ups were lost and considered to be big upsets.

So, is there a trend amongst these losses?

The short answer is yes, to an extent. In all of these match ups, Detroit was the higher ranked seed. Each one of these playoffs series featured a team with arguably less talent than Detroit. That's not to take away from the accomplishments of the victorious. Those teams certainly earned their wins by outplaying the Wings, but they all followed a similar strategy that was perfected by New Jersey in 1995: outwork the team, grind them down with defensive effort, and ride the hot goaltender.

1994 is the first example of Detroit, the Western Conference's regular season champion, losing in the first round to the San Jose Sharks. '94 featured a team that led the league in goals scored by a very comfortable 50 goals and featured six 70 point men, including Hart, Pearson, and Selke trophy winner, Sergei Fedorov. Not to be forgotten, this also featured the debut of Wings legend and this blog's namesake, Chris Osgood. The NHL recently make a "History Will Be Made" commercial out of Jamie Baker's game 7 backbreaking goal. Never say never, indeed.

Shaking off the misery of being beaten by the 8th seed in the West, Detroit came back strong in 1995's shortened season, mauling the competition in the first three rounds of the playoffs. The fans chanted "who cares?" when the Devils lineup was announced at Joe Louis Arena, only to be silenced by a rookie Martin Brodeur and a defensive minded Devils team helmed by the legendary Jacques Lemaire. This marked the beginning of the strategy of using defense-first tactics to grind down a more talented Detroit Red Wings team.

The strategy would be repeated in 2003 by J.S Giguere the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, in 2004 by the Calgary Flames (although it should be argued Miikka Kiprusoff bamboozled Detroit's offense with two shutouts in the final two games of the series) and once more by Cup finalists Edmonton Oilers in 2006.

So how does this relate to Detroit being Detroit's worst enemy? Well, to be fully honest, each time Detroit was beaten by a lesser seed and a less talented team, they were outworked. The regular season success proved to give a false sense of security that the team was much better than the others who struggled to get into the playoff tournament. Sometimes the scoring wasn't there, and sometimes the goaltending wasn't there. Either way, their opponents took advantage of the Wings thinking the first couple of playoff rounds would be a breeze.

Part of hockey is keeping your head in the game and not getting ahead of yourself. I would never suggest that any of the Wings players of those losing teams were anything but professionals. However, if there is one lesson to be learned from the Red Wings twenty years of playoff runs, it's never to get ahead of yourself and never to count the lower seeds out. Since he joined the team, Mike Babcock has worked hard to establish a strong, responsible two-way game that appears to have limited the success of a defense-first strategy like Jacques Lemaire's Devils. Still, there is a lot to learn from the David vs. Goliath playoff series of years past.

In a league that has playoff logjams near the final playoff positions, Detroit remains a top seed as of today. Will they be their own worst enemy again this season? Time will tell, but you can bet those losses still stick in the minds of those veterans still around. Hopefully, they won't let it happen again.

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