Picture mid-March in Dallas, the Stars struggling to find their game, and someone approaches head coach Dave Tippett with a scary proposition.
The Stars would need to beat powerhouses Anaheim, San Jose and Detroit to reach the Stanley Cup final. That’s all.
“Bring it on,” Tippett says he would have answered. “Might as well. If we’re going to go up the food chain we might as well beat the best, right?”
No disrespect to the other teams who made the NHL playoffs, but there hasn’t been a tougher road to the Cup in years. The Ducks, Sharks and Red Wings were the overwhelming favourites to win the Stanley Cup before the post-season began. Now all that’s left for No. 5 seed Dallas is knocking off the President’s Cup-winning Red Wings in the Western Conference final. No small task. But then again, neither was beating Anaheim or San Jose.
“I look back to those first couple of games in Anaheim,” Tippett said Tuesday. “As coaches you’re trying to sell a belief system. And those first two games in Anaheim (both wins) really opened our eyes and got momentum going for us. It doesn’t matter who you play in the playoffs you’re going to play hard teams, but to beat Anaheim and San Jose when really nobody gave us a chance to beat them – that was very gratifying.
“And now you’re coming against the No. 1 team in the league. We’re very willing to accept the challenge.”
Now picture the Red Wings in mid-March, closing in on a wire-to-wire first-place finish in the NHL, and someone telling them they could reach the Stanley Cup final without ever facing the Sharks or the Ducks.
“Of course you thought if you were going all the way to the final you would have seen at least one of those teams,” star Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg admitted Tuesday. “But it’s been a different look this year in the playoffs.”
Zetterberg and Tippett were featured on NHL media conference calls Tuesday along with Wings head coach Mike Babcock, Stars captain Brenden Morrow and Dallas goalie Marty Turco. The pucks drops for Game 1 Thursday night in Detroit.
And it doesn’t get any easier for Turco, does it?
Fresh off backstopping the Stars to yet another upset playoff series win, it didn’t take long for the talk to shift to Turco’s miserable record at Joe Louis Arena. If the Stars are going to continue their magical playoff run after upsets of Anaheim and San Jose, they’ll need to win at least one game in Detroit, where Turco is 0-7-2 all-time in the NHL. He’s 2-10-5 overall against the Wings for his career. But he’s never met them in the post-season.
“I’ve always known in the back of my mind that playing these guys and having the lack of success, I always knew that it hasn’t happened in the playoffs and that would be the ultimate test to see where you stand,” Turco said. “So to say the least I’m looking forward to it.”
The Joe Louis Arena track record is peanuts compared to what Turco has had to overcome this spring. Constantly reminded by his critics about his shaky career playoff record, Turco went out and outduelled two of the game’s best netminders, defending Stanley Cup champion J.S. Giguere of the Ducks and Vezina Trophy finalist Evgeni Nabokov of the Sharks. Turco’s 61-save effort in Sunday night’s six-and-a-half period clincher over San Jose should have silenced his critics for good.
“We got a good glimpse of it last year and unfortunately we didn’t give him enough support against Vancouver to find him those goals and to see how far that would have taken us,” said Morrow.
Turco was sensational last April, shutting out Vancouver three times, but falling just short to Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo in a seven-game goalie duel. This year his team has scored a few goals to support him.
“He’s had us on his back for two rounds here and it’s been real fun to watch,” said Morrow. “He’s been spectacular in making the hard saves look easy for us.”
If Turco is a big story in Dallas, Johan Franzen is clearly the buzz in Hockeytown. The 28-year-old Swedish forward has been a one-man wrecking crew in these playoffs, putting up 11 goals in 10 games.
“He’s been on a run for a good period of time,” said Babcock. “We’re fortunate to have him. He’s really come into his own over the three years he’s been here. He basically went from a guy we thought would play on our minor-league team to now, being a significant factor on our team, offensively and defensively, on the power play and the penalty kill.”
The Stars have taken note of the new star in Detroit.
“He’s certainly been pumping in the goals,” Turco said. “We’ve all taken notice of him scoring the goals. But we’ve talked a lot here about how he’s scoring and what you can do. He’s got great net presence. His skill has always been underrated. Their willingness, as a team, to get to the net is important especially at this time of year. That’s going to be a factor in this series. The ability to battle in front and for me to see pucks and find them and anticipate.”
Franzen has clicked on a second line with Mikael Samuelsson and Valtteri Filppula, giving the Wings more depth behind the top scoring line of Pavel Datsyuk between Tomas Holmstrom and Zetterberg.
“I think in the playoffs you need to spread around the scoring,” said Zetterberg. “You need secondary scoring. That line with Franzen, Filppula and Samuelsson has been really good for us. If you want to go deep in the playoffs you have to have good depth.”