Johan Frazen celebrates a tying goal, one of his seven in the postseason for the Red Wings. (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)
The games are tight, the hits are jarring, every goal is huge. That means it's the NHL postseason, and it also means something else.
It's the Season of the Mule.
Like a red-bearded half-myth, half-man from the mountains of Sweden, Johan "Mule" Franzen descends and then ascends, and what he's doing defies description. For the second straight playoffs, Franzen is the Red Wings' leading goal scorer, a driving force in every way, and when the Wings go for the series clincher tonight in Anaheim, you can bet he'll be in the middle of it.
I'd argue there hasn't been a transformation like this in Wings history. In just two years, Franzen, now 29, has grown from soft-spoken checking forward into big-game gun, perhaps the best playoff scorer in hockey.
We know where Franzen comes from -- Vetlanda, Sweden. But what birthed the Mighty Mule?
Literally, it was a nickname given by Steve Yzerman, who watched Franzen's 6-foot-3, 220-pound body gather speed on the ice and realized the big guy could power his way pretty much anywhere. Physically, it came from hard summers in Sweden spent kayaking, mountain biking and wearing heavy flannel while swinging an oversized ax to chop down gigantic trees. (For the record, I only made up the tree-chopping part.)
Carrying the load
There has to be some mystical myth to this, because the numbers are inexplicable. In 292 NHL regular-season games, Franzen has 83 goals. That's a decent pace, a goal every 3.5 games.
In 49 playoff games, he has 24 goals, including 20 in his past 25 games. That's an astonishing pace. He and Henrik Zetterberg tied with a team-record 13 goals last postseason, although Franzen missed six games because of a head injury. He has seven goals now, including a sizzling shot that launched the Wings to a 4-1 win over the Ducks on Sunday.
"Last year, he caught everybody off-guard," forward Dan Cleary said. "Now, he's just dominant, one of the top five players in the world, no doubt about it. He drives hard to the net, he's big, he can skate, he has great hands and a great shot. He's unbelievable. There's nothing he can't do."
And generally, nowhere he can't go. The key is, he can score almost any way possible, and when he gets in front of the net, he's difficult to move. But that doesn't completely explain his postseason rise. After thinking about it, he offered his own theory.
"I probably save myself a little bit in the regular season," said Franzen, who still had 34 goals. "I like to let the other guys do all the work."
He smiled to let you know he was joking, or half-joking. It's hard to tell with Franzen, who has a wry sense of humor. He admits his body is better-suited for the banging action of the playoffs, but there's something else, and if you probe a bit, you can find it.
Franzen is humble and laid-back, perfectly content to skate from a scrum. No sense wasting energy because, like he said, he's saving it for when it matters.
But make no mistake -- when the Mule gets riled, the Mule gets rolling.
"It always seems, in the regular-season games, it takes a while for me to get going," he said. "That's why I usually play better at the end of games, and probably why I get big goals. I got a lot of energy left. And I get into it when I get a little mad at somebody. (The playoff scrums) are the fun part. Sometimes I'm the reason they start, and I just try to get out of there."
Timing is everything
Mike Babcock thinks Franzen's playoff rise is simple, really.
"He reminds me of (Ducks star Ryan) Getzlaf -- they have a skill set, but their size allows them to go into traffic without being cautious," Babcock said. "The Mule's game is suited for any time of year, but his activation level isn't quite the same."
Franzen first gained confidence when he got a big opportunity back in 2008, taking over for an injured Cleary. It helps that he's playing lately with underrated Valtteri Filppula and dangerous sniper Marian Hossa. It also helps that the Wings have Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg to draw much of the opponents' attention.
Oh, and it helps that Franzen hops into a kayak many summer mornings and zips through the lakes of Sweden. Or goes mountain biking off the trails. Or lifts weights most afternoons.
"I like to mix it up," he said. "The low-intensity stuff before breakfast, the heavy stuff later."
And the real heavy stuff now. The Wings can go into all the tough places and win, and if they prevail tonight in Anaheim, it'll be the ninth straight series they've closed out on the road.
Hmm. Going into tough places and saving the best for when it matters? Sounds like the Mule Plan, and the Wings are happy to follow it.