Chicago — The Red Wings have nothing against the city of Vancouver, mind you. Nor do they have a phobia about playing the Canucks in the first round of the playoffs.
No. What the Wings went into Sunday desperate to avoid was the extra distance it takes to get to Vancouver and the extra hassles that come with crossing the Canadian border.
“For us, all we talked about was, let’s have the best travel we possibly can — whether that’s San Jose or Phoenix,” coach Mike Babcock said. “The third choice was Vancouver because of immigration. That’s an extra hour and a half each trip.
“So sometimes you get lucky and get what you wanted. But you better be careful of what you want sometimes, too.”
The Wings are headed to the desert. They earned the trip with a thrilling, 3-2 overtime victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. They finish as the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference and will open the playoffs against the Phoenix Coyotes on Wednesday.
“It’s great to be going into the playoffs feeling good, obviously,” said Brad Stuart, who scored the winner with 1:49 left in the overtime. “But we have to remember that it’s going to be a whole different ballgame once we get there. It will be nothing like we just faced. It’s going to be a lot tougher so we have to make sure we are ready. The season can end real quickly if you’re not ready.”
The Wings closed the regular season on a 13-1-2 blitz that took them from ninth place to fifth in a bit more than a month. They have 34 points since March 1.
“It’s been a great run,” Babcock said. “But in saying that, the most remarkable stretch we had was when we had no players. We had eight guys missing (injured) and we battled and chipped away and found ways to win games.
“What we’ve done since the Olympic break has been great, but we’ve had the skill to do it. To hang in like we did without it, that to me is more remarkable.”
The Wings were 2-0-2 against the Coyotes, who rose up from nowhere to win 50 games this season. The Wings, though, probably will be a slight favorite despite being a lesser seed because of their overwhelming edge in playoff experience.
“If I’m the coach there, I say experience is overrated,” Babcock said. “But because I coach here, I say experience is important. I do like the fact that we’ve been there before. But you still got to do it again.”
Jimmy Howard never has played in an NHL playoff game, but if he plays like he did Sunday, there should be no worries. He stopped 27 of 29 shots (16 in the second period) and the Blackhawks’ two goals both went in off skate blades, not stick blades.
“We got what we played for today,” Howard said. “We wanted to finish as high as possible. We figured if we could get this win we’d be starting the playoffs on the right foot. We knew all along that if we could just stick around until we got healthy, we’d be able to get on a roll like this. The lines just sort of started to click and everything fell into place.”
The Wings, who played eight straight one-goal games to close out the regular season (6-1-1), got goals Sunday from Patrick Eaves (12th) in the second period and Tomas Holmstrom (25th) in the third.
Stuart’s winner was his fourth.
“I wasn’t going to miss that one,” he said.
Detroit’s victory Sunday allowed San Jose to own the best record and No. 1 seed in the West. It will open the playoffs with Colorado and Chicago will face No. 7 Nashville. No. 3 Vancouver will open with No. 6 Los Angeles.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy no matter who we played,” captain Nick Lidstrom said. “That first round compared to the regular season is always tough. It’s another notch up and the intensity picks up. Phoenix has played real well and I think they’ve surprised a lot of people.