Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Red Wings Might Have Competition Right Where They Want Them

Last June 12, as the Pittsburgh Penguins reveled in their first Stanley Cup win since 1992 on the Joe Louis Arena ice surface, the state of the team in mid-December, 2008 must have seemed to them like ancient history---something written in hieroglyphics on a cave wall somewhere.

I caught team president Mario Lemieux before he made his way into the locker room. The Pens had made a coaching change after the new year. And I wanted to know how the Penguins were able to go from also-rans around Christmas to Stanley Cup champions six months later.

"They bought in," Lemieux said about new coach Dan Bylsma. "And we got our special teams in order."

Same question, posed to Bylsma moments later.

"I thought that we had the talent to make this happen," Bylsma told me just after donning his champions baseball cap, about his feelings when he took the team over from Michel Therrien. "I didn't want to say it too loud, but I knew we had the talent."

The Penguins were 16-10-4 one year ago today, on the fringe of playoff contention. A few weeks later, they sank to 20-19-4. No one was talking Penguins when they were handicapping Cup contenders. They appeared to be another of those Eastern Conference champs who were destined to sink back into anonymity.

Under Bylsma, the Pens caught fire. They finished the regular season on a 16-2-3 tear. And they kept that momentum rolling in the playoffs.

The NHL, more than any other league, operates on its own space-time continuum. It's like dog years. Six months ago in the NHL might as well be years in the past.

Six months ago, the Red Wings were 60 minutes away from a Stanley Cup championship. Today, they're scrambling to stay in the playoff picture. Their roster has been depleted by free agency losses and injury.

Maybe they have their competition right where they want them.

I'm not filing a motion to have coach Mike Babcock replaced, like the Penguins did with Therrien. But I also know that no team in its right mind would want to play the Red Wings in the playoffs, no matter their seeding.

The Red Wings haven't played the role of the snake in the grass in years. They've been among the top five teams in contention for the Cup since the mid-1990s. You don't sneak up on teams with 120-point seasons.

But no one is talking Red Wings right now, just like no one was talking Penguins a year ago. Yet the injured players the Wings have won't stay out of the lineup forever. When the team returns to full health---assuming that's possible---it will likely be just in time for the last third of the season.

Just enough time for the hurt forwards to find their timing and their hands.

I hope the Red Wings seize this moment and enjoy NOT being mentioned as the "team to beat" throughout the winter. I hope they find contentment in playing in relative obscurity until their key people get back.

But I also hope they know how to deal with it, for it ain't the norm around "Hockeytown," today's Montreal.

Still, if you're a Western Conference playoff team, and you want a piece of the Red Wings come spring, then you've been sniffing the goal post paint.

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