Thursday, April 12, 2007

NHL Playoff Preview -- Round One: Detroit Red Wings v. Calgary Flames

Here is my original Wings/Flames series preview from Monday, bumped back up to the front page in anticipation of tonight's Game One.

It's April and snow is on the ground, which means it must be time for the NHL Playoffs and the real season to begin for the Detroit Red Wings, who, once again, as they seemingly always do, hold the #1 seed in the Western Conference, earning them a date with the #8 seed Calgary Flames.

While I may be a bigger football and baseball fan than I am a hockey fan (I still love hockey though, don't get me wrong), there's nothing like NHL playoff hockey. I just can't get enough of it and my attention this time of year is always focused on the Red Wings and their chase for the Stanley Cup. I have seen a lot of great sporting events in person over the past two decades. The Major League Baseball All Star Game. A Superbowl. Numerous nail-biting, jaw-dropping University of Michigan football games like the 2005 last second victory over Penn State, the 2004 miracle comeback against Michigan State, and the 1998 Rose Bowl victory. And, of course, Magglio Ordonez' walkoff home run against the Oakland Athletics to send the Detroit Tigers to the World Series.

Yet, none of those were the greatest sporting event I have ever attended live. That honor goes, without question, to Game Seven of the 1996 Western Conference Semifinals. For Red Wings fans, the game needs no introduction or explanation, but for those wondering why some seemingly random game over a decade ago was so special, here's the backdrop. It was the Red Wings and the St. Louis Blues, Steve Yzerman versus Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull. And it was Game Seven, loser goes home. And this was before the Wings had won any Stanley Cups, and fans were pretty anxious to see the Wings finally accomplish something in the playoffs. I was at the game with my dad and the arena had a certain electricity to it all night, everyone on the edge of their seats. I love playoff hockey so much because one goal can make or break an entire season. In no other sport does one score (even in baseball with one run) matter so much in the playoffs. And after 60 minutes of play there were no scores, on either side. Which meant sudden death overtime. Next team to score wins, next team to be scored on is playing golf. Now the arena really tightened up. And for 20 minutes, not a goal was scored. A second overtime was beckoning. And I started to realize why 0-0 soccer games could be so exciting. Not a goal had been scored in 80 minutes of hockey but it was the most riveting and exciting game I had ever seen. Then, less than two minutes into the second overtime, Captain Steve Yzerman blasted a slapshot from just inside the St. Louis zone and the rest is history. I still remember running out of the arena, every fan honking their horns into the Detroit night. I'll never forget that night, or that goal.

But you didn't come here to reminisce (or maybe you did). Steve Yzerman won't be able to score any double overtime goals for the Red Wings this year, but he will be watching from a suite inside Joe Louis as the 2007 Red Wings take on the Calgary Flames in the first round of the playoffs. And what an interesting series this should be.

In no other sport does seeding matter as little as it does in the NHL. While the Red Wings are the #1 seed and Calgary #8, the upset has been the rule, not the exception in recent years. And the Wings are no stranger to early round defeats, especially at the hands of the Flames. In 2004, experts thought the Wings would have an easy time with the younger and more inexperienced team from Canada. They were wrong, and Flames upset the Wings in six games. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff had a great series against Detroit, putting up a stellar 1.73 goals-against-average in those six games. Kiprusoff is back in 2007 and had a solid year for the Flames, racking up 40 wins and posting a 2.45 GAA. Not only will the Wings have to deal with Kiprusoff, but Calgary has one of the best forwards in the game in Jarome Iginla. Iginla had his best season since 2001 this year, scoring 39 goals and gaining a career best 55 assists.

In the past few seasons though, as much as the Wings opponents have played well (especially the goalies the Wings have faced) they have as much beaten themselves as anything. And while the Wings goaltending is what usually takes most of the blame (as the old saying goes, the three toughest jobs in Detroit Sports are starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions and Michigan Wolverines, and starting goalie for the Detroit Red Wings) the biggest problem the Wings have had is lack of scoring. It always seems that no matter how well the team performs in the regular season, once the playoff hits, they try to get too cute. Make one too many passes. Try too long to get just in the right spot before taking a shot on goal.

Injuries have also played a major role in the Wings lack of playoff offensive output. Last season, for example, Pavel Datsyuk was a non-factor, but he also probably shouldn't have been on the ice. With Datsyuk's new $46 million contract in hand, there will be a lot of pressure on him to step up his game to the next pay grade and put the Wings on his back and carry them if he has to. And with the health of the Wings other top scorer, Henrik Zetterberg, a real question mark, it may be Datsyuk's team to lead.

How far the Wings go, and even whether they will beat the Flames, will be in large part determined by the team's health. Losing defenseman Niklas Kronwall to a broken hip was a big blow (and you have to feel bad for Kronwall who has suffered one freak injury after another in his young NHL career) and even though Henrik Zetterberg says he'll be ready to go in the playoffs, he won't be 100%, and that is going to hurt (literally and figuratively). If Zetterberg doesn't heal fast, the Red Wings won't be going far in the playoffs.

Plus, there's another downside to playing Calgary, as Christy over at Behind the Jersey points out. The games are going to be on late. The absurdity of the Red Wings playing in the Western Conference is very frustrating. Nevermind seeing the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadians only once a year (if that). It means playoff games starting at 10:30 EST and ending past 1:00 in the morning. It wasn't fun when I was in high school and we had 10:30 games at Anaheim and it's less fun when I have finals to study for and games keeping me up all hours of the night. Though, at least I will be able to watch the Tigers games at 7:00 and still catch the Wings later on. I'll review notecards in between periods. I do have priorities after all.

So, looking for a prediction after all of these fun tangents? Red Wings in 6, though I reserve the right to change that prediction if Zetterberg doesn't come back. Should be a fun series though. About time NHL playoff hockey is back. It's been too long.

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