DETROIT – As a rookie in 2005, Johan Franzen whizzed past Steve Yzerman on the ice.
A nickname was born.
The six-foot-three, 220-pound Swede showed he’s more than just big when he scored twice and had an assist to lift the Detroit Red Wings to a 4-3 series-opening win over the Colorado Avalanche.
“He’s big and strong and he reminded me of a mule that day,” Yzerman recalled Friday. “His offensive game really started to show up last year and now that his confidence has grown, he is holding onto the puck and making plays.”
Colorado saw that up close Thursday night in Game 1 of a Western Conference semifinal.
Franzen split two Avs to set up a goal, then scored on a deflection in front of the net and slapshot from the left circle to give the Red Wings a three-goal cushion they held onto for the victory.
“He’s one of those big forwards that not only uses his size to his advantage, but has nice hands,” Avs coach Joel Quenneville said. “Everybody likes big power forwards, but they’re hard to find.”
The Red Wings found Franzen in Sweden – where several players on their roster were born – and drafted him with the 97th overall pick in 2004. Franzen scored 22 goals combined in his first two years in the league before breaking out this season with 27 goals and 38 points.
He had three multi-goal games in a 20-day span last month when teammates Tomas Holmstrom, a fellow Swede, and Dan Cleary were slowed by injuries.
Suddenly, Franzen wasn’t the defensive-minded centre he was earlier in his career.
“It’s a new thing for me,” he acknowledged. “It started to turn for me when I got to play more on the power play because Cleary and Homer were injured.”
Against a banged-up team, Franzen and the Red Wings will have a chance to go up 2-0 Saturday afternoon.
Avs forward Wojtek Wolski will not play in Game 2 and likely will miss the rest of the second-round series because of an upper-body injury. Star forward Peter Forsberg, who was scratched from the series opener with a groin injury, is questionable. Goaltender Jose Theodore is expected to play after being pulled and sent to the hotel during Game 1 because he was sick.
Regardless of who’s on the ice, Colorado defenceman John-Michael Liles said he and his teammates have to be aware of Franzen.
“He’s a dangerous player, for sure,” Liles said.
A unique one, too.
Detroit defenceman Chris Chelios has played in an NHL-record 253 playoff games and about 1,900 overall since his debut in the league during the 1983-84 season. He was stumped when asked if Franzen reminds him of any current or former player.
“There haven’t been too many guys that big and quick, especially as a centre,” Chelios said. “He’s made the most of his opportunity this year. He’s become a very key player for our team.”
He’s also become a popular player in the dressing room, where he displays his subtle humour and willingness to accept being referred to as the off-spring of a donkey and a horse.
“At first, he didn’t know what (mule) meant and didn’t know if it was a good or a bad thing,” said Niklas Kronwall, Franzen’s roommate on the road. “Once he found out what it meant, he was proud of it.”