DETROIT – Ken Holland is one of the more demonstrative guys you’ll ever meet. When the Detroit Red Wings GM is talking, his arms are flailing around so much sometimes you have to watch he doesn’t poke your eye out.
Outside the Detroit dressing room Wednesday morning, Holland is going from placard to placard. He points to the 1995-96 Red Wings, a team that rolled through the regular season with 62 wins and 131 points, then lost in the conference final to the Colorado Avalanche. Then he jumps to the next year, when the Wings had 24 fewer wins and 37 fewer points, then went on to win the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups.
“We were playing keep away most of that season,” Holland says of the ’95-96 team. “One night we went into Calgary and we beat them 4-0, they had 14 shots on home ice. We had the ‘Russian Five’ and nobody could get the puck from us.”
So what does that have to do with Game 3 of the Red Wings second round series against the San Jose Sharks? Well, Holland tells that tale to illustrate how slim the margin is between winning and losing. Then he takes his pen out and draws an imaginary line at the top of the wall.
“People think the difference between the team that wins the Stanley Cup and everybody else is here to here,” he says, drawing another line about three feet below. Then he draws another about three inches below the top line and says, “It’s really between here and here.
“So what am I saying?” he asks, now putting his thumb and forefinger together. “The difference is about this much.”
Thanks for hanging in so far, which again brings us to Detroit-San Jose. The difference in the series has been incredibly minute, yet the Sharks find themselves on the verge of taking a 3-0 series lead against the Red Wings for the second straight year, which would almost certainly mean a series victory over the Detroit for the second straight year.
People can make all the hay they want about snow showers to goalies, but San Jose are ahead in this series because they’ve been a little better than Detroit at crucial times during the games. Detroit has largely held its own in the first and third periods, but has been terrible in second periods. A penalty kill that was uncharacteristically terrible in the first round against Phoenix has given up a crucial goal in both second round games.
(Speaking of snow showers, series supervisor Kris King met with both teams in the morning and the feeling is each will get one warning before the referees start handing out unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.)
The Sharks seem to be a step ahead of the Red Wings so far. It’s not an enormous step, mind you, but they seem to be just a little sharper, a little quicker, a little bit better in goal and a little more able to win battles for the puck and use their size in the offensive zone to keep control of it. All of it has added up to a stranglehold on the series and the depressing realization that one of these two teams is not going to be playing hockey within the next week or so.
It seems a lot like last year when San Jose came into Detroit in the second round leading 2-0 after two one-goal games on home ice. The Sharks ended up taking that series in five games.
You look at the play so far in the Eastern Conference and it seems almost unfair. Any one of the teams in the West, two of which will be knocked out in this round, would have any one of the teams in the East for lunch at this point in the playoffs. The problem is the West teams have a far more difficult route to the Stanley Cup than those in the Eastern Conference and that takes away much of their physical advantage by the time the final starts.
Which is why, among other reasons, you’ll see the Red Wings first in line to move to the Eastern Conference if the NHL finds a way to save the Phoenix Coyotes and the Atlanta Thrashers move to Winnipeg. That would leave an opening for a Western team to move to the east and Detroit will lobby very hard for that to happen. And you’d have to think a powerful owner such as Mike Illitch would get his way over the likes of the Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets.
But for now the Red Wings will either have to find another gear and be even better or they’ll find themselves putting their feet up very soon. And it’s simply because, as good as they are, they’re not quite as good for a two-week period as one of the best teams in the league.
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Detroit coach Mike Babcock pointed out he will break up Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for Game 3, then joked that means Sharks coach Todd McLellan, a former Red Wings assistant, will break up Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
“We might,” McLellan said. “When it comes to that, it’s not going to matter. I think way too much is made about matches. Our 18 skaters will have to play their 18 skaters regardless of the matchup.”