June 9, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Wings' Mike Babcock finds perfect coaching touch

Coach Mike Babcock seldom lets up and that attitude has been adopted totally by his Red Wings as they attempt to repeat as Stanley Cup champs. (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)


Here they are again, chasing something special, pulled by strong forces, pushed by others.

The Red Wings sit one victory from another Stanley Cup, and it's pretty obvious by now, they don't get here by accident. Everyone pulls but it's one man's job to relentlessly push, and Mike Babcock takes his job very, very seriously.

Oh, he'll crack a smile and joke about wearing his lucky tie, but there's no letup with Babcock, the eloquent, emotional turbine on a team of low-key stars. It's not a coincidence there's little letup with the Wings. They can pull off a rare repeat by beating the Penguins in Game 6 tonight in Mellon Arena, and what drives them is different from who drives them.

Marian Hossa desperately wants his first Cup, and to be vindicated for his jump from the Penguins to the Wings. Chris Osgood would virtually cement his Hall of Fame status. Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk would further their rankings among the game's greats.

And Babcock would do what his idol and mentor did. No NHL team has won back-to-back titles since the Wings in 1997-98 under Scotty Bowman. Babcock is not Bowman in name, but Babcock is Bowman in style and demeanor.

That means he keeps pushing, demanding discipline, even when injuries mount and the tank gets low. This series didn't end with the Wings' 5-0 blowout, and the Penguins will be calmed down and fired up tonight. The Wings know a 3-2 lead guarantees nothing.

It's easy to look at them now, with all their talent, and say they got here naturally, but there's nothing natural about it.

"This is the hardest year I've ever had in coaching," said Babcock, 46, in his fourth season with the Wings. "And I think it's one of the hardest years for the players. Ozzie battled like crazy. And Z., this guy's like the Energizer Bunny, he always gives more, gives more, gives more. And I can remember one time he said, 'I can't get myself going,' and I couldn't believe I heard that. That's because it's year after year after year. So you had to be real careful, especially early, to leave them alone."

A fine line

This is where and when that experience matters, when the other team is teetering and a championship is beckoning.

And this is the fine line Babcock walks. He has a team of veteran winners, some with four championships, and has to know when to push and when to back off. He didn't know at all when he arrived, but now he asks Lidstrom or Zetterberg whether it's a good day to practice, or which combinations make sense.

Take Osgood, who struggled in the regular season. A younger Babcock might have said or done something he regretted. This Babcock gave Osgood time and space, and look who's shining.

"I think when he first got here, he tried to come in and be a bit of a tyrant," Osgood said, smiling. "He was working us pretty good, yelling and screaming. I don't know, is he behind me right now?"

He whirled around and looked, and nope, no Babcock. Osgood laughed, good therapy the day before a crucial game.

"The biggest compliment I can give him is, he's gotten better in every single area," Osgood continued. "Whether it be coaching, being a people person, being able to talk to his players, knowing what buttons to press. Guys don't have a problem when Coach gets mad or pushes them. To me, he's the best coach in the league right now, for sure."

Slight warming

Babcock has been the best coach in the league the past two years, and has an amazing playoff winning percentage of .659, counting his appearance in the 2003 Finals with Anaheim. But, like Bowman, he isn't the easiest coach for players to embrace.

When Jeremy Roenick said a few weeks ago Babcock mistreated Chris Chelios, it wounded Babcock. He might have Scotty's ruthlessness when it comes to playing time, but there's an emotional side. Babcock doesn't soften his players with praise, but has learned he can't toughen them with barbs all the time.

He was asked Monday if he's kinder and gentler, and he smiled broadly.

"I think they're more used to me," he said. "Yet I'm a big believer in, you've got to make them do it right. But you cross the line sometimes as a coach. I've done a better job as I've gotten older of going to the guy and saying I crossed the line."

For several minutes, Babcock turned introspective, and it was fascinating. If you listened closely, you could understand why the Wings are back, despite missing Datsyuk, Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Kris Draper for various stretches, despite some spotty play and tough losses.

"Everything isn't warm and fuzzy," Babcock said. "At this time of year, they're more tolerant of you and you're more tolerant of them. It's probably to a fault, but I love to win, love to compete. ... It doesn't mean you're going to win, but it gives you a chance."

The chance is right here. Osgood said he thinks they're more mentally and physically rested for this huge test, and he expects the Wings' best game tonight. I wouldn't doubt it.

They don't have a cushion, even if they do. A loss and all the pressure switches to the champs for a Game 7 on Friday at Joe Louis Arena. It'll take one more big push, and everyone knows how much is needed, including the guy who pushes most.


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