Red Wings an unstoppable force

Everything the Pittsburgh Penguins did to win the Eastern Conference title the Detroit Red Wings did to secure the Western Conference crown. Argue all you want about how the Pens have been better because of a 12-2 record in the playoffs compared to 12-4 for the Wings, but the path to the Stanley Cup finals was fraught with more challenging obstacles in the West than it was in the East.

The Red Wings made it look far easier than the task really was to accomplish, and that has to give Pittsburgh pause for thought. It wasn’t easy, nothing in the two-month grind of the NHL’s postseason ever is, and the next and final step won’t be easy either.

Detroit is the first Presidents’ Trophy winner to reach the Stanley Cup finals in the same season since, well, the Red Wings did it in 2002 en route to winning the big, silver, shiny chalice in five games over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Only eight players from the ’02 champs are still wearing the winged wheel and the coaching staff is completely different. Exactly when did Detroit go from that team that was too old to seriously compete for a Stanley Cup to becoming a perennial contender again? Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Brett Hull changed to Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen in the blink of an eye.

No high first-round draft picks? No more unlimited spending now with a salary-cap system in place? No matter. The Detroit Red Wings are just as much an elite team now as when the franchise won three Cups in six seasons from 1997-02 – if not more so.

That’s a bold statement, so why make it you ask?

The Red Wings were that much head-and-shoulders against the West this season because they simply became a much tougher team to play against. Detroit learned from its third-round loss to eventual Stanley Cup champ Anaheim last spring.

In addition to getting hit with a number of untimely and significant injuries, especially on defense, the Wings just weren’t as gritty as they needed to be to get through four rounds. They looked at their roster and, like everyone else, saw plenty of talent. No need to make significant changes there. Philosophically and strategically, that’s where coach Mike Babcock’s team made an adjustment, and look at the dividends.

Detroit just left no doubt during the four key segments of its season. Take a look at greater detail.

Regular season: Detroit raced out to a 10-2-1 October, was 17-6-2 through November and 29-8-3 before the start of the new calendar year. This was en route to a seventh straight Central Division title, which was won by 24 points – the widest margin during any of the seven recent titles.

Round 1 vs. Nashville: After having a 2-0 series lead evaporate into a 2-2 tie against the most threatening recent division rival, the Red Wings were utterly dominating in winning the final two games of the series – outshooting the Predators a combined 97-41 and outscoring them 5-1 to safely advance.

Round 2 vs. Colorado: Not only did Detroit zip out to a 3-0 series lead – the absolute stranglehold every time accomplished over the past 33 years – the Wings’ style exacted a physical toll on the Avalanche, who had difficulty fielding a competitive representative for Game 4. And, well, they didn’t actually. Detroit won in a walkover, 8-2, during a game in which it appeared it could have score more times if it wanted.

Round 3 vs. Dallas: It was very similar to the Colorado series, just against a more resilient and stubborn opponent. The Wings won the first three games, didn’t come mentally prepared in Game 4 at Dallas and ran into an impenetrable Marty Turco during a 2-1 home-ice loss in Hockeytown in Game 5 before leaving no doubt in Game 6.

It could be suggested that Detroit’s path might have been more difficult if it had to face Calgary, San Jose or Anaheim along the way, but don’t fault the Red Wings for that. Instead blame the Flames, Sharks and Ducks for not getting enough done during the regular season to put themselves in the position the Red Wings enjoyed.

Detroit added the missing ingredient of grit, too, without sacrificing anything along the way. The Wings are still a puck possession, puck-carrying, aggressively pursuing team. Their special teams are outstanding.

When is the last time an opponent enjoyed success on the power play against the Red Wings? It’s not just a matter of luck. Watch how Detroit plays short-handed. No other team in the league is as aggressive up the ice as the Wings. They make opponents work for every inch of ice even on the power play.

Detroit routinely sends a forechecker deeper than any other team when short-handed. The result? A rushed pass here, a poor decision there, regrouping and wasted time in the power play. Oh, and short-handed chances.

The Red Wings have superb talent. They have a strong work ethic. They are confident. They are very well coached. And they are the best in the West. There really was never a doubt.

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, May 20, 2008