Is Johan Franzen a mean guy? Seemingly not, since he has a drawing by Kennedi Draper, daughter of Kris Draper, hanging in his locker. (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)
It was a fun moment, or a weak moment, or just a really odd moment. It was late in the Red Wings' dissection of the Blackhawks in Game 4, and Johan Franzen finally was sick of the whacking and yapping from one of the youngsters.
So in a fit of unbridled annoyance, Franzen did something completely out of character. You can find the clip already on YouTube, and you can read the description right here: Big, bearded Franzen reaches over and grabs the mouth guard that little Patrick Kane is chewing on and tosses it to the ice. Viciously.
Um, OK, it actually was dismissive, not vicious. And, sure, it didn't quite qualify as unbridled annoyance, in the traditional sense. But the point is, even though they sometimes play like machines, impervious to pain and distractions, immune to taunts and retaliation, the Wings are not robots. When cut, blood oozes, not hot oil.
But when pushed, the Wings generally respond with a shrug and a shot (on goal). It was the difference in their 6-1 blasting of the bitter Blackhawks and it could be the difference tonight, when the Wings try to wrap up the Western Conference finals in Game 5. They appear primed to advance, but like I said, they are human, and they did lose two possible close-out Game 5s at home last year, to Dallas and Pittsburgh.
I heard they were punished by having the circuit boards yanked out of their chests.
"I would say the smartest game of the playoffs for us was that last game," said goalie Chris Osgood, fully hydrated and ready for tonight. "We have to do that again. Just keep your emotions in check and just play."
It's the easiest thing to preach -- stay poised! -- and the toughest thing to implement. But it's so ingrained in the Wings' clinical style, and has led to so much success over the years, there's no other option. That doesn't mean they avoid physical play (just ask Mr. Havlat). It means they'd rather not waste energy on the silly stuff.
Maybe that explains why Franzen, who had a perfectly normal reaction to a dangling mouth guard, was sheepish about it.
"I don't know, it just happened," he said. "It was fun. But I won't do it again."
Hmm. So while the Wings might appear robotic in their response to on-ice stimuli, they can get irritated, as Franzen humorously showed.
Cleary liked the stunt
"I guess it was un-Red Wing-like, but I really got a kick out of that," said Dan Cleary, who was standing next to the play.
"I don't feel we're robotic. We have a boatload of fun, but when it comes to game mode, there's a certain switch. It does take time to learn, but now we all know the discipline it takes to win, whether it's taking a punch in the face after the whistle, or ignoring when someone's trying to goad you into something. You're never bigger than the team."
It began with Scotty Bowman, who despised players who took bad penalties. Mike Babcock is similar, although he doesn't run some sort of gulag. It might surprise people to know the Wings' huge hitting machines (that word again) -- defensemen Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart -- are such humble soft-talkers, you can barely get them to discuss their exploits.
And in case you don't believe me on the mechanical issue, Nicklas Lidstrom did miss his first-ever playoff game and might be out tonight because of an undisclosed injury. (It's not a frayed wire, as far as I know.)
You've heard of a team priding itself on having replaceable parts? The defending champs lost two irreplaceable parts -- Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk, who is close to returning -- and found a way to reach the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Sticking to the plan
Sometimes when they look vulnerable, the Wings are at their best, showing their own brand of toughness. While the Blackhawks were running around as if their lungs were on fire, committing 56 minutes in penalties in Game 4, the Wings stuck to the plan.
I bet jovial Joel Quenneville will have his young charges a bit more composed, but if not, the Wings will try to avoid the scrums and colorful discussions. They committed the second-fewest penalties in the league, and the way their roster is built -- high on skill, shy on enforcers -- it makes no sense to mess around.
It starts at the top, with the ultra-calm Lidstrom, Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. In sports, you are who your best players say you are, and it's unambiguous on the Wings.
"When I got here, there were no hotheads or guys that retaliate," Cleary said. "You never see Nick do that. You never see Z do that. You never see Pavel do that. I've never seen those guys slam a gate or break a stick in frustration. So when they're not doing it, it doesn't give you much right to do it, does it?"
Nope. But if they're smart about it, the Wings will go ahead and slam a gate on the Blackhawks tonight and keep advancing like a well-oiled, uh, team.