Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Babcock's Hunch Might Win A Bunch, After All

The other day, I was thinking about some of the most exhilarating and most disappointing playoff series in Detroit sports history. I did the Pistons and the Red Wings in my scattered brain. Obviously, the '87 conference finals -- Pistons/Celtics -- is right up there in the disappointing category, for it was the series of Isiah's "pass" to Larry Bird.

Anyhow, I rattled some of these around and I came to one conclusion: ALL playoff series are disappointing when you lose. There just isn't a worse feeling. Yet winning a series mostly seems to bring out feelings of relief, at least in me, instead of any pure exhilaration. Funny how that works.

But one Red Wings series sticks out in my mind, and it's the 0-4 effort in the 1995 Cup Finals against New Jersey. Oh, how that series gives me the creeps when I think of it! A powerhouse Red Wings team going up against a defensive-minded Devils club with the brilliant young netminder Martin Brodeur. Detroit was the clear favorite, though some more level-headed folks went with the Devils and their trapping play as their predicted winners.

The Red Wings lost both Games 1 and 2 at home, and both by one goal. I can still see Paul Coffey lying on the ice, trying to draw a penalty, while play continued and the Devils scored late in the third period of Game 2.

The series just got worse and weirder when it went to New Jersey. Seemed like the Devils would score on every one of their few scoring chances, while Brodeur kept stoning the Red Wings and their vaunted offense. The Wings led briefly in Game 4 but couldn't hold it. They got swept.

Chills. Creeps.

Not that the Pittsburgh Penguins were favorites going into this series, but I imagine Pens fans must be getting that creepy feeling, watching their team go 0-for-2 in Detroit -- and by that I mean no goals, let alone victories. How maddening must it be to watch your team play for the Stanley Cup and not even be allowed the common courtesy of occasional puck possession?

Back in the glory days of the 1950s in Montreal, it was once said of the Canadiens' success: "They play a funny brand of hockey in Montreal. They never let you have the puck."

Same kind of hockey that they're playing in Detroit nowadays.

I don't want to gloat (yet I will), but I predicted a Red Wings Cup wayyyy back as the playoffs began. Just had a hunch -- though I thought the Wings would have to go through San Jose to do it. But I must confess that my visions of Lord Stanley didn't include Chris Osgood in net. And, I'm ashamed to admit, had I thought it would be Ozzie in goal for almost the entire playoff run, I might have been a little skittish. Yes, shame on me.

Why is that, I wonder? Osgood has won a Cup. He played magnificently for almost the entire season. He made the All-Star team. Yet I was content to place my eggs in Dominik Hasek's basket and take my chances.

Now, a word or two about Hasek. First, just because he was replaced after Game 4 of the Nashville series doesn't mean that he wouldn't have gotten it together and led the team to the same place it sits right now -- two wins from the championship. Second -- and this word is actually more about coach Mike Babcock -- Hasek was replaced on a hunch, more than anything else. Kind of like my hunch that the Red Wings would win the whole thing.

As we look back on this 2008 playoff run, we might want to put Babcock's decision to replace Hasek with Osgood on the same mantel as Tigers manager Mayo Smith's dare to put Mickey Stanley at shortstop in the 1968 World Series. It's a move that Colorado's now ex-coach, Joel Quenneville, didn't have the man-berries to make after Jose Theodore stunk up the joint in Detroit in the first two games of the second round.

This Stanley Cup Final isn't over with. Not by a long shot. Every playoff hockey series is always just one strange bounce/fluke goal, hard hit, or costly penalty away from being turned around. But it's hard to imagine that these Red Wings are NOT the NHL's team of destiny this season, Osgood capturing another Cup ten years after his first. By the way, what IS the longest gap between Cups for a goalie for the same team?

Oh, and since that Devils Debacle of '95, the Red Wings are 14-1 in Finals games against their Eastern opponents.

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