DETROIT – The Red Wings are back in the playoffs for the 20th consecutive season, and Wednesday night, everything seemed back to normal in Detroit. The first octopus hit the ice during the national anthem, going splat behind Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov(notes). Kid Rock, Eminem and Motown blared from the loudspeakers. Johan Franzen(notes) scored. Joe Louis Arena roared. The Wings won, 4-2, and echoed each other afterward.
“This is one game,” Franzen said.
“Again,” coach Mike Babcock said, “this is just one game.”
It was one game. But it was a playoff game, and it showed why the Wings have won four Stanley Cups since 1997 and remain contenders to win again. When the sun comes out, when the weather warms up, when the fans sneak slimy sea creatures into the rink – as they have been doing since the octopus’ eight legs represented the wins required for the Stanley Cup – something changes. The Wings find their passion, without losing their poise or professionalism.
[Photos: Red Wings-Coyotes face off]
“When you start playoff at home, lots of fans chanting,” Datsyuk said in his thick Russian accent. “You come to the rink, it’s exciting. Everybody in red jersey. It’s kind of …”
Datsyuk searched for the right word.
The regular season is not extra, not for a veteran group used to going to the playoffs every year. The Wings started the season 10-1-2 at home, then went 11-13-4 at the Joe the rest of the way. They coasted down the stretch, going 4-5-2 overall. Just a couple of weeks ago, they lost at home to the St. Louis Blues, 10-3.
Time to get serious.
Babcock made Mike Modano(notes) a healthy scratch Wednesday night, even though star Henrik Zetterberg(notes) was out with a knee injury. Modano grew up in the Detroit area. He played for owner Mike Ilitch’s youth program. He’s the highest-scoring American in NHL history. The Wings made a big deal about signing him to help in the playoffs. But he’s 40, he suffered a serious wrist injury during the season, his body is betraying him, and the playoffs aren’t about PR or politics or the past. They’re about now.
“We haven’t been playing like we wanted to before at home here, and we were well aware of it,” Franzen said. “But I think everyone is so used to this, coming into the playoffs and everyone stepping it up and taking it to the next level. I wasn’t worried about that. I knew we were going to come out and play a strong game.”
This is not to say the Wings have flipped the switch. Let’s wait and see if they win this series before we say that. These same Coyotes pushed them to seven games in the first round last year, and they didn’t seem intimidated at all in the first period Wednesday night. If anything, they seemed inspired.
Yes, the Wings have won 11 Cups, while the Coyotes haven’t won a playoff series since the franchise moved from Winnipeg in 1996. Yes, the Wings say they play in “Hockeytown,” painting the word in bold, black letters over their logo at center ice, while the Coyotes can’t say in what town they will play hockey next season.
Sportsnet Radio reported Wednesday that the Coyotes will move back to Winnipeg after their elimination from the playoffs. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly called that “totally untrue” in an email to Yahoo! Sports. “No decisions have been made at this point,” Daly wrote, saying the league was still trying to close the sale of the team to Matthew Hulsizer and keep the Coyotes in Glendale, Ariz.
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None of that mattered 2:16 into the game, when the Coyotes scored before the Wings had even taken a shot. Ray Whitney(notes), a former Wing, backhanded a pass from the right-wing corner to Kyle Turris(notes), a 21-year-old making his first NHL playoff appearance. Turris snapped the puck into the upper right corner of the net. He was not nervous.
“To be honest,” Turris said, “this is probably one of my favorite places to play. I just love everything about it – the history of the Joe and the all-red stands and the crowd and the octopus. It’s awesome. Coming out, I was just so excited, having lots of fun.”
But then Wings looked like the Wings again. They killed off four penalties in the first period – including a 1:30 two-man disadvantage – and another early in the second. Goaltender Jimmy Howard(notes) made some big saves, and they didn’t panic. They found their game.
“All of a sudden, they scored a couple goals, and the crowd got into it, and it was a whole different game,” Turris said. “They seemed a lot more calm and kind of in their comfort zone. They started getting more and more momentum as the game went on.”
A pressure cooker can become a comfort zone when you’ve got guys like Franzen. In his last 27 regular-season games, he produced only two goals and 14 points. Then Wednesday night, he had a goal and an assist – giving him 32 goals and 61 points in his last 52 playoff games.
“It’s different,” Franzen said. “You get a different mindset and everything. It’s just so much more intense.”
It’s the playoffs.
“Everything’s totally different, and it should be different,” Babcock said. “As you go on in the playoffs, each round is different. So that’s what makes it exciting, and that’s what makes older gentlemen younger, and that’s why you all cherish this time of year.”