DETROIT — You might not be able to tell by the expression on his face when he’s on the bench, but Red Wings coach Mike Babcock is actually enjoying himself immensely.
Babcock has coached better teams. The 2008 Stanley Cup champions and the Canadian Olympic team that won gold in 2010 come to mind first.
Still, there’s something about his 2013 Red Wings team.
“It’s the most fun I’ve had coaching in a couple years, by far, just because we have a real enthusiastic group,” Babcock said Sunday after an optional practice. “At the start of the year, we weren’t a good team. We all understood that, but we buckled down and we got better.
“It’s been a fun year for us. If you would have asked me before the playoffs, I would’ve told you the same thing . . . Then suddenly you have a little success in the playoffs and it’s more fun.”
The Red Wings are tied 1-1 in their second-round playoff series with the Chicago Blackhawks. Game 3 is at 7:30 p.m. ET on Monday at Joe Louis Arena.
Babcock is also having fun helping some of the young players learn how to play at this level.
“That (Joakim) Andersson line has been a key for us because we got worked in the three-hole for the first two, three months,” Babcock said. “The growth of (Brendan) Smith and (Jakub) Kindl has been huge for us. (Jonathan) Ericsson has gotten much better.
“We seem to have people playing in spots that suit them better. When (Danny) DeKeyser came in, it helped us immensely.
“The biggest improvement out of anybody has been Justin Abdelkader. He was our fourth-line center, and suddenly he’s playing with Pavel (Datsyuk) all the time and he’s a dominant, physical guy for us.
Although the Wings are very different, according to the players, Babcock remains the same.
“I really haven’t seen much of a change from Babs,” goaltender Jimmy Howard said. “He’s one of the coaches who demands a lot out of his players.”
Brunner finding playoff groove
Damien Brunner was busy Sunday plotting how he’s going to spend all the money he planned to win from his teammates.
Switzerland and Sweden faced off Sunday afternoon for the gold medal in the world championships in Stockholm.
“A really big day for Swiss hockey, obviously,” Brunner said with a big grin. “It’s going to be even more fun walking in in the morning and get all the money.”
Captain Henrik Zetterberg, who played with Brunner in the Swiss League during the lockout, wasn’t too worried.
“I think today we’re enemies and we’re looking forward to that 2:30 start,” Zetterberg said. “We’ll have to get some bets in before we leave.”
The enemy thing certainly ended as soon as the final horn sounded on Sweden’s 5-1 victory. No way the Wings captain wants to be on the opposite side of his rookie teammate.
Brunner and Datsyuk are tied for second behind Zetterberg (10 points) with seven points in nine playoff games.
“He’s a smart player,” Zetterberg said of Brunner. “He’s scored a lot of goals in his (hockey) career. He keeps doing it. He’s really good offensively.
“He still has some to learn defensively, but when you start playing in the system, you start learning that. I think he’s been improving all year.”
Brunner didn’t face quite the same pressure when he had the puck in the Swiss league and keeps his sense of humor about his defense.
“I thought it was better, except maybe my assist on (Anaheim’s Ryan) Getzlaf’s goal,” Brunner said. “I don’t want to jinx it, but I find my defensemen in the zone and cutting people off, so probably better.”
Coming to the United States to play in a lockout-shortened season could be a difficult thing with the relentless schedule, the travel and the high level of play. In Switzerland, the longest trip he took was 2 1/2 hours by bus.
“You kind of think it’s not that big of a deal when you come over, but after a couple trips and the hours you lose, especially when you come back home, it’s tough,” Brunner said. “It’s really tough.”
He had 12 goals and 14 assists in 44 regular-season games. Ten of those came in a little over a month, then he went 15 games without a goal.
Brunner has rediscovered his scoring touch since the playoffs started, with two goals in the Anaheim series and a goal in each of the first two games against the Blackhawks.
“Obviously, I’m happy that the puck’s bouncing for me right now,” Brunner said. “It’s a new experience, also the travel, going back and forth and playing every other day.
“We got used to that already during the season, so that helped a little bit . . . It’s intense, and all the fans are into it, so it’s a lot of fun out there.”
Goalie Jimmy Howard has a theory as to why Brunner seems so calm despite the intensity of the playoffs.
“I really don’t think he has a clue what’s going on,” Howard said with a laugh. “I don’t think he understands the realm of things, of what could possibly happen here as the playoffs unfold.”
Even though Brunner, 27, is old for a rookie, Babcock believes he has another level to reach.
“Anybody who wants the puck and plays with the kind of speed he has is valuable,” Babcock said. “He’s going to get better just because he’s going to get bigger and stronger.
“He’s going to learn the league more. He’s better defensively already. We think we’ve got a good player.”