The Detroit Red Wings needed a late finishing kick but not only made the playoffs for the 22nd straight season, they catapulted into seventh in the Western Conference.
It’s only fitting that in their last season in the West that the Wings would have to head to the West Coast to play the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the first round.
The Wings and Ducks faced each other three times in the lockout-shortened, 48-game season. The Ducks won the first meeting, 5-2, Feb. 15 at Joe Louis Arena. The Wings won the last two meetings in Anaheim, in back-to-back games March 22 and 24, 5-1 and 2-1.
The Wings won their last four games of the regular season, scoring more than three goals in each of those games, their longest such streak of the season. FORWARDS
Pavel Datsyuk edged out Euro Twin Henrik Zetterberg for the Wings’ team scoring lead with 15 goals and 34 assists in 47 games. Zetterberg had 11 goals and 37 assists in 46 games.
Johan Franzen picked up his scoring pace in the last nine games, collecting seven goals and two assists in that span.
As for the Ducks, the Wings have tangled with Ryan Getzlaf (15 goals, 34 assists), Corey Perry (15 goals, 21 assists) and Bobby Ryan (11 goals, 19 assists) before.
“They lean heavily on those two guys, and Perry is one of those guys that’s always around the net — he has a nose for the net — and Getzlaf is more of a passer,” goaltender Jimmy Howard said. “That doesn’t mean he can’t shoot the puck, because he has a great shot, as well
“But both teams have their work cut out with the top two guys.”
Coach Mike Babcock understands how dangerous that top line can be but he’s worried about other guys.
“Their third line is an issue for us, in that their depth is really good up front,” Babcock said. “You look at Chicago and you look at them (the Ducks), anybody who runs away with hockey, it’s because of the third line. The top-two match off and then it’s the third line.
“So we gotta handle that situation, and the big thing for us is just keep getting better.”
Saku Koivu (8 goals, 19 assists), Andrew Cogliano (13 goals, 10 assists) and Daniel Winnik (6 goals, 13 assists) make up that third line.
The Wings will rely on their third line of Joakim Andersson (3 goals, 5 assists), Damien Brunner (12 goals, 14 assists) and Gustav Nyquist (3 goals, 3 assists) to try to counter the Ducks’ third line.
The Ducks also have the ageless Teemu Selanne, who had 12 goals and 12 assists.
The Wings have a mix of experienced blue liners like Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Kyle Quincey and inexperienced ones like Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser.
“You have to learn on the go, and I think we’ve been doing that this year,” Smith said. “I think we heard a lot about our defense, about people not having faith in us, but I think we’ve done pretty well.
“I think our goals-against average is top-10 in the league, so it’s something we’re going to keep doing. We’re going to keep playing hard like that, keep blocking shots and keep playing the same way we have of late, and I think it’ll pay off for us.”
Babcock had something very interesting to say about one of his young defensemen.
“I’m a big believer, if we don’t get DeKeyser, we don’t make the playoffs, just because it gives us one more D to solidify our back end, to help us move the puck,” Babcock said.
Of course, you can’t replace the experience and talent of Nicklas Lidstrom, who retired after last season, and Brad Stuart, who went to the San Jose Sharks.
The Wings also benefited from the increasingly steady play of Jakub Kindl.
If any of them falter, veterans Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo are ready to step in.
The Ducks have solid veterans Francois Beauchemin, Sheldon Souray, Bryan Allen and Ben Lovejoy.
Michigan native Cam Fowler battled injuries this season but is an excellent offensive defenseman.
Jimmy Howard firmly established himself as the Wings’ No. 1 goaltender, going 21-13-7 with a 2.13 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
“He’s another reason why our goals-against average has been so low, because he has been so great,” Smith said. “We’re just trying to make sure it’s outside shots.
“As a defensive corps, we’re making sure we’re on the same page, and it’s been working. We’re putting the pucks in a little more offensively, and if we keep at it and keep working hard defensively, it’s going to help him.
“He’s been the backbone for us all year.”
The Ducks have two equally good goaltenders to turn to.
Veteran Jonas Hiller went 15-6-4 with a 2.36 ERA and .913 save percentage. Victor Fasth is an NHL rookie but a veteran of the Swedish Elite League who went 15-6-2 with a 2.18 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.
Babcock, who turns 50 on the day of Game 4 Monday, has won a Stanley Cup, with the Wings in 2008. He was also the Ducks coach when they upset the Wings in 2003.
“I’m pretty excited about that, playing on my birthday,” Babcock said. “I told my buddies yesterday when they were abusing me that I didn’t feel a day over 25.”
Bruce Boudreau came to Anaheim last season, helping the Ducks finish on a 24-14-6 run.
Quite a few experts are picking the Wings to defeat the Ducks, despite being the lower seed.
“L.A. kind of paved the way,” Quincey said. “We’re not the eighth seed, but they did something remarkable last year and just proves that anyone can beat anyone at any time.”