April 17, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Speedy Red Wings set to take in big, bad Bruins

Kulfan and Niyo on Red Wings-Bruins
Kulfan and Niyo on Red Wings-Bruins: Ted Kulfan and John Niyo of The Detroit News discuss the Red Wings' first-round matchup against the Bruins.

Detroit — One team is the best in the league, a playoff stalwart, a Stanley Cup favorite, a storied franchise in a storied hockey town.

And the other team is the Red Wings.

Uh, OK. This is different, even a bit awkward, like meeting the guy who took your plush corner office. It’s different in more ways than we’ve ever seen, as the Wings make their first foray into the Eastern Conference playoffs and immediately get to face the East’s beasts, the Boston Bruins. Be careful what you wish for, right?

The Wings always wondered what it’d be like to play at reasonable times, instead of flying five hours for 10 p.m. faceoffs while fans back home guzzled coffee to stay awake. They wondered about the East’s reputation for physical play and whether the playoffs truly were tougher, not that the West conducts figure-skating exhibitions,

And while this part isn’t entirely new, it’s as stark as ever: The Wings have transformed into the pesky underdog they used to hate seeing, quick, skilled and seasoned with a few veteran stars. When the series begins Friday night, the Bruins will throw the NHL’s gaudiest credentials on the ice, along with a bunch of heavy, heaving players, starting with 6-foot-9 defenseman Zdeno Chara. They have, arguably, the league’s best goalie in Tuukka Rask and the best defense, and they won the President’s Trophy for best record.

Detroit's Cats

The Bruins are the Las Vegas favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup, something they did in 2011 and nearly again last season. The Wings are the young team growing quickly, a big-name franchise with lots of new names, which makes them a semi-fashionable upset pick. How about this comparison: Detroit is like Kentucky in the recent NCAA Tournament, where the young Wildcats were an eight seed that nearly didn’t get in, then nearly won it all.

Hmm. Eight seed. Renowned tradition. Freshly tapped talent.

“I never play the Bruins in the playoffs so this is something new — big team, but it’s good to be fast,” said Pavel Datsyuk, healthy and skating well again. “We’ve been in that situation before, lots of pressure on the Bruins. Always, if you’re in the first spot, everybody’s watching you.”

The Wings know what they’re facing because they used to be that touted team, and could be headed that way again. They made a stirring run last season to reach the playoffs, and in their first season in the East, wracked by injuries, they extended the streak to 23 years by grabbing the final spot.

So this isn’t totally unfamiliar, just fairly unfamiliar. They haven’t faced the fellow Original Six Bruins in the playoffs since 1957, and if they were to pull it off, equally unique obstacles such as the Canadiens and Rangers lurk.

“Sure, the Bruins and some of the other teams from the East are physical, but we played Anaheim last year and they’re big and physical,” forward Gustav Nyquist said. “I think the biggest thing is the travel. You don’t have to travel three different time zones, and that affects you more than you know.”

For all the concern about tiring travel, the Wings did win four Cups coming out of the West. And while the East is viewed as more rugged, that might not be the case this season, with Anaheim, San Jose, St. Louis and Chicago in the top-heavy West.

Not that the Wings could afford to be picky. They churned to a 10-5-2 record the past month and were rewarded with the least-favorable playoff matchup. If they’d bumped up one spot, they’d face the Penguins, also battered by injuries. The Wings might have won that series, but this one looks considerably more difficult. Far from impossible, but daunting indeed.

“If you look at it, in their shoes, they think they’re in the driver’s seat, and we believe we’re gonna be a tough out,” Mike Babcock said. “So something’s gotta give. Should be fun.”

Babcock and Ken Holland have done an excellent job skipping over what was supposed to be a painful rebuild, just in time for their next uncharted ride. So, all those radical adjustments to a new conference are tricky, huh?

“Just think about how much more productive the work force in Detroit and Michigan is gonna be,” Babcock said, cracking a smile. “They won’t be up all night long, they’ll be in bed at 11 and be productive people the next day. So that’s a positive thing.”

Speed vs. muscle

The point is, beyond sleep patterns, tangible differences aren’t so easy to define. The Bruins are big and occasionally mean, from 6-2 center Patrice Bergeron to 6-3 Milan Lucic to the incredible Chara. They like to agitate, and probably like their chances against a Wings team that has energetic youth (Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco) and veteran savvy (Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall, Daniel Alfredsson, Johan Franzen) but likely won’t have injured captain Henrik Zetterberg this round.

“They have a ton of (speed), a lot of guys with skill,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. “I think the biggest thing is to try to slow them down and try to be physical.”

Kronwall has been here 10 years and thinks this is the fastest Wings team yet. The Bruins are the older, slower, better team, although the Wings won three of four meetings in the regular season.

One showcase moment in Detroit’s 3-2 victory April 2 came when Nyquist zipped around Chara to score a highlight-reel winner. There aren’t many flashes in the tight-checking playoffs, so the Wings will have to straddle the fine line between exuberance and recklessness. And they’ll have to do a better job defensively in front of Jimmy Howard.

“We got a lot of young guys that I’m sure are gonna have the nervous excitement,” Howard said. “For the last couple years, we’ve played the underdog role and it’s no big deal, sort of fun. But this team can be very dangerous, just because of the young legs and using the speed to our advantage.”

The Wings showed some of that last season, beating the Ducks in Game 7 and pushing the Blackhawks to Game 7 before falling, a reminder that playoff runs can come out of nowhere. Now the new-look Wings are staring down a new road, not quite sure what to expect. They’re fine with that, because the flip side is, not many in the East know what to expect from them.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Boston vs. Detroit

All games on FSD unless noted

Friday: at Boston, 7:30 p.m.

Sunday: at Boston, 3 p.m. NBC

Tuesday: at Detroit, 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 24: at Detroit, 8 p.m.

x-Saturday, April 26: at Boston, 3 p.m. NBC

x-Monday, April 28: at Detroit

x-Wednesday, April 30: at Boston

x-if necessary

Familiar feeling

A look at the longest consecutive playoff appearance streaks in the four major pro sports leagues:

League Teams Streak (Years) Titles
NHL Boston Bruins 29 (1967–96) 2 (70, 72)
NBA Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers 22 (1950–63, 1964–71) 2 (1955, 1967)
MLB Atlanta Braves 14 (1991–93, 1995–2005) 1 (1995)
NFL Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts 9 (Dallas 1975–83, Indianapolis 2002-10) 1 (Dallas 1978, Indianapolis 2007)

23 … and counting

Results of the 23 consecutive seasons the Red Wings have reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs:

Season Record (Points) Result
2013-14 39-28-15 (93)
2012-13 24-16-8 (56) l. in semifinals
2011-12 48-28-6 (102) l. in quarterfinals
2010-11 47-25-10 (104) l. in semifinals
2009-10 44-24-14 (102) l. in semifinals
2008-09 51-21-10 (112) l. Stanley Cup Finals
2007-08 54-21-7 (115) w. Stanley Cup
2006-07 50-19-13 (113) l. in conference finals
2005-06 58-16-8 (124) l. in quarterfinals
2003-04 48-21-11-2 (109) l. in semifinals
2002-03 48-20-10-4 (110) l. in quarterfinals
2001-02 51-17-10-4 (116) w. Stanley Cup
2000-01 49-20-9-4 (111) l. in quarterfinals
1999-2000 48-22-10-2 (108) l. in semifinals
1998-99 43-32-7 (93) l. in semifinals
1997-98 44-23-15 (103) w. Stanley Cup
1996-97 38-26-18 (94) w. Stanley Cup
1995-96 62-13-7 (131) l. in conference finals
1994-95 33-11-4 (70) l. in Stanley Cup Finals
1993-94 46-30-8 (100) l. in quarterfinals
1992-93 47-28-9 (103) l. in semifinals
1991-92 43-25-12 (98) l. in division finals
1990-91 34-38-8 (76) l. in semifinals

Zdeno Chara, left, and Milan Lucic make the Boston Garden a house of horrors for opponents. / Gary Wiepert / Associated Press
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