Much of the Red Wings' late-season success has been due to the emergence of young players like Gustav Nyquist, right. In the postseason, though, Detroit is more likely to rely on battled-tested veterans like Niklas Kronwall, left. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
Detroit — The Red Wings clinched a chance in the second season, the Stanley Cup playoffs. Once again, relatively inexperienced players must lift their games.
Once again, they will become more familiar with what it takes to successfully play in the NHL.
The stretch drive surprised many. Young players played fearlessly. With the season on the line, 9-4-2 is no small feat, even for graybeards, let alone rookies.
They learned a great deal about the game played amid some desperation in the top league in the world.
But in the playoffs, the action ratchets up significantly.
Long is the list of eventual NHL stars and Stanley Cup winners who were uncomfortable and ineffective in their first attempt, and sometimes more, at “playoff hockey.”
Long is the list of teams that eventually have their names engraved on Lord Stanley’s trophy, who fail and fail and then fail again before they get there.
Playoff hockey is faster, often more physical and the margins for error are narrower right from the start of the first period of the first game of the first series. With each player and coach understanding it could be their last chance at what they have imagined since they first laced skates, winning the Stanley Cup, the intensity is unparalleled.
It is a pinnacle of any season, let alone career or life.
The only thing close is the Olympics, where pride of country stokes passions.
And it all plays against the inexperienced Red Wings, with their propensity for the occasional lapse in deployment, the turnover, the momentary distraction, the tactless penalty, the errors of the untested and — perhaps most especially — their far-too-frequent inability to quickly launch the offensive attack from their own zone.
“We play hard,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “We don’t always play right, but we play hard.”
The growing pains of those unfamiliar with Stanley Cup play is a big reason why Daniel Cleary, Mikael Samuelsson and Todd Bertuzzi are on the roster. The playoffs require something beyond mere seasoning. They require recollections of the experience so strong that the lessons are fused with instinctual response.
Bertuzzi is likely to play, but it appears the jobs of Cleary and Samuelsson have belonged to others, younger and quicker, who will not relinquish them.
Institutionalized recollection of playoff hockey is why the stature of Niklas Kronwall, the gimpy-kneed Pavel Datsyuk, Jimmy Howard, Daniel Alfredsson and newcomer David Legwand — who earned his playoff chops with the Predators — just got even bigger.
It is why Henrik Zetterberg is a particularly shattering loss, and why the absence of Jonathan Ericsson will be more noted.
“Datsyuk’s better and getting better,” Babcock said. “I don’t even know if Zetterberg’s in the picture.
“Ericsson’s a big blow for us.”
All of this makes the Red Wings odds in the first round, against either the Bruins or Penguins, long.
The Bruins have, far and away, the largest goal differential in the NHL. Entering play Thursday, they had 83 more goals for than against. Their goaltender, Tuukka Rask, is likely to win the Vezina Trophy, and they can score.
Defense wins championship. Offense augments the effort.
The Bruins have both.
The Penguins ranked first in the power play and second in penalty killing. Specialty teams frequently provide the margin of victory.
There is no timetable for Evgeni Malkin’s return from a foot injury. But when he is added to Sidney Crosby, they remain perhaps the most formidable pair of forwards in the NHL.
And while it is true that the two top-ranked teams in the East warily regard the Red Wings in the first round, the fact they are regarded means they have been noticed. They will sneak up on no one.
Already, teams have adjusted to the young hotshots, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco and, successively, the Canadiens, Sabres and Penguins have defended them better.
Odds are long
Clearly, the Red Wings are unlikely to prevail.
But, then again, against long odds, they already have.
The perilous stretch drive of last season, the first round upset of the Ducks, the near upset of the Blackhawks, the crushing overtime defeat in Game 7, lots of ice time in critical situations almost all of this season and persevering amid more danger the last few weeks, these Red Wings have a resume chock full of unexpected, high-stakes accomplishments.
Do we dare doubt?
“We got good kids here, and they’ve been a ton of fun,” Babcock said. “They play hard.
“We’re a tough hockey team to play against. We play hard.
“If we’re detailed and get good goaltending, we’re a tough out.”
Stanley Cup odds
Here are the odds to win the Stanley Cup from vegasinsider.com:
Red Wings: 35-1
Blue Jackets: 60-1