Mike Babcock has been to one Game 7 in the Finals, losing to the Devils in 2003 as coach of the Ducks. (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)
They've been through it all and seen it all. Cups, no Cups, cusps of Cups, every combination possible.
The Red Wings have experienced almost everything, but they've never gone through anything quite like this, a postseason so withering, you wonder how much they have left. And they've never seen exactly this: a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals.
One Last Grasp and a few last gasps. And then, sometime around 11 tonight, the Wings either will clutch confirmation of historic greatness, a rare repeat championship, or suffer staggering disappointment.
The Wings have won four Cups the past dozen years but haven't had a run so strife with injuries and danger, against the dark backdrop of Detroit's economic struggles. It will take every last burst of energy to finish off the Penguins, and the fans in Joe Louis Arena should recognize that and supply a steaming, shrieking Cup of Joe.
No one holds back now, and you can bet the Wings will look more like the team that pressed frantically at the end of Game 6 in Pittsburgh than the team that started too slowly. Every time they've been challenged, they've responded with a flourish, and I expect it again.
Will it be enough? If the Wings play poised with the puck and Chris Osgood continues to dazzle, it should be enough. The Wings are 11-1 at home in these playoffs and 5-1 at home against the Penguins in the past two Finals, outscoring them, 21-6.
Fight to the finish
But there's no certainty now, not in one last tense bout against a team with superstars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Heck, the precocious Penguins might be too young and simple to realize they're not seasoned enough to win the biggest game held at Joe Louis Arena.
The Wings have been trying to hold off the Penguins this whole series, often with one injured star (Pavel Datsyuk) tied behind their backs. It has been like this much of the playoffs, wounds mounting and tank draining, which is why a victory would be richly earned.
"The playoffs this year have been as big a battle as we've ever had, for sure," coach Mike Babcock said Thursday. "I've been really impressed with our team's will, and our guys' attitude over the last couple of days. I don't think you can be tired now. This is a dream you've had, and now you get to control that dream."
Already, the NHL has gotten what it wanted, a terrific Finals between the wily Wings and the swift-rising Penguins. Already, our town has been treated to two months of stirring competition, and if you have a chance today, you should take a moment to appreciate it. Then go right back to fretting.
This doesn't happen in every city, although it seems like it happens here every spring. And just because the Wings usually finish the deal, doesn't mean it's easy, or destined to happen.
"I think the atmosphere will be unbelievable, and everybody will be a little nervous," defenseman Brad Stuart said. "It's that time of year when you're forced to dig down a little bit deeper, and we've had to do that a lot, probably more than last year."
Or any year, really. Since getting swept by New Jersey in 1995, the Wings haven't faced an elimination game in the Finals. They swept Philadelphia and Washington, beat Carolina in five and beat Pittsburgh in six.
In fact, during those four Cup runs, the Wings played one Game 7 -- in 2002 against Colorado (a 7-0 victory). This year, they beat Anaheim, 4-3, in Game 7. No one's used to this; the franchise hasn't hosted a Game 7 in the Finals since 1955, when the Wings beat Montreal.
History doesn't matter now. No one wants to hear about injuries or weariness either, although for the Wings, who have gone deep into the playoffs three straight years, it's real.
Playing with pain
Captain Nicklas Lidstrom missed the first two playoff games of his 17-year career, and there's no way he's healthy now. Datsyuk was out seven games and just now is gaining strength. Brian Rafalski (five games), Kris Draper (15 games) have missed time, and Tomas Kopecky has been out since the second round.
No one should make excuses, and the Wings aren't. Everyone aches now, and as they showed in their 5-0 victory in Game 5, the Wings can crank it up when necessary.
It's never been more necessary.
"We gotta play a lot better, be a lot more solid at the start, and I'm sure we will," Osgood said.
"We have to be smart and loose and driving, and I think we'll be all three of those."
Osgood has been great, the Wings' leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, along with Henrik Zetterberg. But a slip tonight and everything heads the other way, to Malkin and the Penguins.
The pressure is immense, escalated because these teams have scrapped so fiercely, a nice bitter rivalry is brewing. I don't want to ruin your morning, but can you imagine the sight of Crosby lifting the Cup in Joe Louis Arena?
I'll pause while you shudder.
The Wings obviously don't want to see it either, and no one would grimace more than Marian Hossa, who jumped from the Penguins for this opportunity and has yet to score in the Finals.
Just one more layer of tension.
"The competition's been great," Osgood said. "A lot of teams are younger, bigger, more physical, which makes it a lot more difficult. I think this series is right where it's supposed to be."
And ending exactly as it should, on a night unlike any we've ever seen.
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